In 2000, Robert Schimmel seemed to be on the top of the comedy world. He had a new sitcom and a hit stand-up cable TV special — all of which came to a halt when he was diagnosed with stage III non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
As part of a joint series between "Good Morning America Now" and Carolines On Broadway comedy club called "Carolines On GMA NOW," Schimmel discussed his new book, "Cancer on $5 a Day," in which he talks about how comedy helped him battle the disease.
An excerpt of "Cancer on $5 a Day" is below.
Getting the News
I am in Los Angeles. I am separated from Vicki and living with Melissa. More about her in a bit. As soon as my TV pilot is finished and I get everything straightened out, I'll settle in L.A. for good, with Melissa.
Vicki and I have had a checkered relationship. We got married, then got the marriage annulled, then got remarried, got divorced, then remarried, then on the way to divorce for the absolute final time, no turning back, no bullshit, our son Derek got sick. We stayed together for him, for our other kids, fought the good fight, lost, then drifted apart, not uncommon when a couple loses a child. Now, unfortunately but inevitably, it's over, the final divorce. Bottom line, we tried. But it wasn't meant to be.
And now Melissa. Finding her, falling in love with her, realizing that I belong with her, being more certain of that than of anything in my life. And then, wham, there's a light shining on me, as if the spotlight finds me for the first time. I'm asked to do a sitcom. Me? You kidding? I'm fifty, bald, and Jewish. Not exactly the demographic advertisers are trying to reel in. Who cares? It's my time. After twenty years of stand-up, America has embraced me and my raw, take-no-prisoners, balls-out comedy. I'm gonna be famous. Bizarre.
I go into rehearsal for the pilot. The hours are grueling, the work is intense. I feel fatigued and dazed, and then right before we're set to shoot the show, I start getting chills, two, three times a night. I've got the shakes so bad that I pile on extra blankets. When I wake up, the bed is soaked, totally drenched, as if a pipe has burst beneath the sheets. Melissa is worried, begs me to see a doctor. I don't know any doctors in L.A. I call my manager, who makes an appointment for me with his doctor. I go in for a checkup, and the doc schedules me for a CAT scan. The scan comes back clean.
"You're run down," the doctor says. "We might want to do more tests. You could have Epstein-Barr or mono. That'd be my guess."
Even though there's nothing on the scan, something eats at me. I don't know why, but I feel like there's something else, something that the scan didn't see.
About a week after we shoot the pilot, I'm playing the Monte Carlo in Vegas. My parents are staying with me. It's early June and by noon the temperature is hitting 110, but no problem, it's a dry heat. One afternoon, my dad and I decide to take a stroll through the forum shops. Suddenly, I'm freezing. My entire body starts to shiver. My lips quiver and my teeth begin to chatter.
"Robert, you're shaking."
"I'm freezing. I'm gonna go into the Gap and buy a sweatshirt. I'm really cold."
"Have you seen a doctor?"
"Yeah. I saw that guy in L.A."
"You have to get a second opinion. Today."
I call the doctor who removed my gall bladder a few years ago. He sets me up the next day with a doctor at Mayo in Scottsdale. The doctor wears a permanent frown as he goes over me like he's buying a used car. Finally he says, "How long have you had this lump?"
"Right here." He lifts my left arm and rubs a tiny bump in my armpit, half the size of a pea.
"I didn't know I had that."
The doctor puckers his lips. For a second it looks like he's gonna kiss me. Then he whistles out a thin stream of air.
"Feels funny," he says. "I want to do a biopsy."
And that's how I ended up here at the Mayo Clinic, my parents sitting bedside, nobody saying much. All of us waiting for the news.
Actually, there's another curve ball. When I woke up in the recovery room, after some of the anesthetic wore off, I felt pain shooting up under my right arm. Sure enough, my right arm was bandaged, not my left, the one with the pebble-sized lump. When I was being wheeled into my room, I said to the orderly, "You guys did the wrong arm."
I could see him studying my chart. His eyes clouded over. "Let me get the doctor."
I don't know how long I waited for the doctor. I was in a morphine-induced cloud. When I managed to blink my eyes open and focus, the doc was standing over me.
"We didn't do the wrong arm," he said, continuing the conversation I'd begun with the orderly. "We found another lump under your right arm."
With his thumb and forefinger, the doctor made a circle the size of a quarter.
"Yeah," he said.
"Waiting for the results," he said.
From "Cancer on $5 a Day* (*Chemo Not Included): How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life" by Robert Schimmel (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2008).