David Lee Nelson makes stage four colon cancer look like a joke 

Laughing Matters

click to enlarge _david-lee-nelson-042.jpg

Joeff Davis

"My wife left me, and I started to update my Facebook status. A lot."

That was the opening line that won me over to actor and comedian David Lee Nelson. It was 2010 and the College of Charleston grad was in town for Piccolo Spoleto with his one-man show, Status Update. Age 32, recently divorced, freshly sober, and attempting to make a career as a stand-up in New York City, Nelson's feckless charm and relentless honesty made him an instant hit and a City Paper coverboy.

As we at the paper quickly learned, Nelson was one to watch.

A sharp observer and conveyor of the human condition, Nelson's journey went from Piccolo performances to a starring role in a local production of Hamlet. But while Nelson identifies as an actor and a comedian, he's always had the heart of a writer. In all of the plays he's written, his work has always been brutally and often hilariously honest, and inevitably presented with a gratis side of hit ya in the feels.

In Status Update, it was the parsing of his failed marriage that woke up audiences. Halfway through the play, Nelson reminisced about making his wife's coffee. "I knew just how to make it. I knew the exact color she liked it with just enough milk," he said, the audience exhaling as if he'd just poured them a piping hot cup of heartache.

Nelson displayed the same ability for truth-telling in his 2012 Piccolo play, The Elephant in My Closet. Based on his real life, Nelson wrote about finally coming out to his father ... as a Democrat. His dad, a staunch Republican, had long been Nelson's political role model. But eventually, living as a comedian surrounded by liberals and trying to cobble an income together from the occasional acting gig and tutoring, Nelson turned to the Dem's side. As he told CP in 2012, "Your political views start to change when you become a staff member for an 11-year-old."

Last year Nelson moved to Atlanta to pursue bigger acting gigs. The Charleston puddle he'd been swimming in was too small, and Nelson wanted an opportunity for greater exposure. "The idea of going and working with new people, people I don't know, it's scary and exciting and thrilling. And as an artist, I think I have to seek out situations and people that are new to me and possibly uncomfortable," he told us. I kept up with his life via Facebook and would like his often waggish posts — "Remember when old people invited you to play Candy Crush instead of disseminating Russian propaganda?" — so it took me by surprise when I saw the following status update appear on my timeline in March:

"Before reading this, promise not to freak out. Promise? OK, you can continue."

Nelson had been diagnosed with stage four colon cancer.

"Apparently I'm part of a trend of people in their 30s getting colon cancer. Which is exciting because I've always considered myself to be forward thinking," Nelson wrote. Typical David. When the rest of the room was losing their proverbial shit, he was already trying to find the humor in his diagnosis. And that attitude continues. On the first day of chemo, Nelson started a blog about his cancer experiences and he's posted every day since. It's just as moving and witty as we expected it would be.

click to enlarge David Lee Nelson writes daily - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • David Lee Nelson writes daily

April 19

First day of chemotherapy. I've decided I'm not going to say chemo anymore but instead use the full word. Chemotherapy. The therapy part has a nice ring to it. Chemo sounds like you're fucked. Like someone jumped you outside of a shitty motel and stole your wallet and took your pants. Like "Yeah, I got chemo'd outside of Days Inn off 95. I was walking to the Waffle House and boom — chemo."

Chemotherapy, however, sounds lovely. It sounds like there's gonna be scented candles and carafes of water with cucumbers. "I'm here for my chemotherapy. Where's my robe?"

It felt like the first day of school. I laid out my outfit the night before. I bought snacks. I was nervous. I kept wondering if I was going to meet new people and make new friends. Would the other patients like me? Would I be invited to happy hour?

I was excited to get the whole thing started because I was tired of building it up in my head. It has been my experience that things in my head are often worse than things in real life. Our brains can take the thinnest reed and twist it and turn it and spin it out of control. Like making cotton candy out of nothing. Besides it's never the things you worry about that become problems. I was certainly not worried about colon cancer. I was worried about booking an audition or if my car could make it to 200,000 miles. Cancer was the farthest thing from my horizon and that was the thing that made all my other worries obsolete. Which, if you think about that, is actually pretty terrifying. "Hey — don't freak out — all those things you are worrying about aren't going to be an issue...but something completely unknowable is going to destroy you. Here's your cotton candy."

Besides, on the 17th they had found more cancer in my lymph nodes. They had done a PET scan and then a biopsy. So candles or no candles, chemotherapy was something that I needed. This wasn't some elective procedure I was having done. It was necessary. And today is the first day.

April 24

I used to live in Charleston, S.C. which is the most beautiful city in the world according to everyone who has ever been there. The most remarkable thing about the city is the weather. It starts to feel amazing around the middle of February and doesn't stop being nice until January. I went to college there and I firmly believe it is the hardest school in the country. I'm sure physics at MIT has some challenges, but you should try History 201 at CofC when all your friends are stoned at Folly Beach and when you tell them you have class they call you a pussy.

I bring this up because yesterday was Sunday and it rained. Poured all day and I was so glad. My dad drove down to spend the day with me and we stared out the window and said "I guess we're staying in."

It was so wonderful. Having an excuse to do nothing. When the weather is nice I feel like I have to go out there and enjoy it. Plus, I'm a member of Generation X. And as a member of Generation X, I was highly influenced by Dead Poets Society. As a result, ever since my diagnosis I've been trying to carpe diem, seize the day, and let me tell you that shit can get exhausting. I imagine if you have all the money in the world carpe dieming can be fun, but I'm a little broke right now so it's hard AF. I'm like "Yep, I'm just gonna suck the marrow out of life on this park bench. Wow, the breeze feels amazing! And free!"

Being broke is even having an effect on my bucket list. Instead of "seeing the Taj Mahal" and "learning to sail" mine is "saying yes to the guacamole" and "Pick up birding."

But yesterday it was raining. I got to forget about the tyranny of nice weather. I got to forget about making my life appear Instagram-worthy for the day. I was able to lay around and drink coffee and listen to the Cubs game and watch some golf with my dad. Guilt free!

And really what's more carpe diem than that?

May 2

I am really happy I have lots of nausea medicine because every time I hear about these proposed replacements for the Affordable Care Act I feel like vomiting. And not like sarcastic vomiting but like "get out of my way, I need the trash can."

The reason it's so scary for me is that because of my colon cancer I am now a preexisting condition. Through no fault of my own either.

I know that according to Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) people without preexisting conditions are the ones who have "lived good lives" (literally what he said to Jake Tapper on CNN) but I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I basically just sit there and wait for time to end. I exercise. I eat right. Hell, I even go to church every Sunday and meditate seven days a week. (#brag) But nonetheless, a group of cells in my body decided to go all Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on me and get cancery. Because that's what all the cool cells were doing, I guess. I was like "No, don't do that. You'll regret it one day" and they were all like "You're not my dad" and I was like "We are literally the same organism" and they were like "Too late, we've already mutated! We're X-Men!"

And look, I understand that insurance companies don't want to pay for these drugs and tests and treatments. I get it. They're fucking expensive. My surgery/week in the hospital was over $50,000. My MRI was over $13,000. I feel like I should send Ambetter Health Insurance a bouquet of roses and a tube of KY. That being said, I didn't want to pay my premium each month for the years I was healthy, but I did it. I'm sure when I was in college, the manager of Shoney's didn't want to see me and all my stoned friends walk in and order the breakfast buffet, but he did. Because that is the business you are in, and unlike my getting cancer, you chose it.

And yes, I know the president has said that pre-existing conditions will be covered. Then again, five minutes later he said, "I stand by nothing" So...Yeah...

The new law will allow states to opt out of forcing insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions, if they form high-risk pools to cover us. And apparently we all swim in these high-risk pools and forget about the fact that they are filled with other people's urine and it will be amazing. Because the states will do a better job. That's the argument. Just like they did with voting rights and gerrymandering their congressional districts.

Here is what I'm proposing: I understand that this is a complicated issue with "a lot of ins, a lot of outs, and a lot of what have yous." (#Lebowski.) I think the members of Congress who are trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, instead of saying "people with preexisting conditions" they should use our names. Instead of Rep. Brooks saying that insurance companies should charge people with preexisting conditions more to offset the cost for those "who have led good lives," he should have to say "David Lee Nelson should be charged more to offset the cost for those who have lived good lives." Or your grandmother's name. Or your sister's name. Or your friend's name. Or your neighbors name.

The truth is, like it or not, we are all in this together. Because we all have a pre-existing condition: It's called being human. And you get it through no fault of your own.

May 5

There is something pleasant about the chemo room. It looks like a nail salon. Seriously. There is a row of recliners and people giving you pedicures. They were like "Your feet are so soft" and I was like "How is this helping my lymph nodes?"

One of the biggest challenges of my treatment up to this point is that I like to people watch. Which is a fine activity in Central Park or Marion Square, but in the Infusion Center at Emory ... feels a little creepy. People are looking at their phones and I'm just staring at them over my computer, typing furiously.

Oh, by the way, everyone getting chemo is on their cell phone the whole time. Everyone. If you don't have one when you walk in, they just hand you a Galaxy 7. They're like "Have fun and I hope it doesn't explode!" I understand why. It makes total sense. You've got to sit there for two hours while the medicine drips into you so what else are you going to do. Thank God we have them. I can't even imagine what chemotherapy was like before cell phones. Just a bunch of people staring in the distance, contemplating life.

But this past Wednesday, as I was people watching in the chemo room, I became incredibly inspired by the whole enterprise. I was in the company of fighters and the people who love them. You could feel the hope in the room.

The whole thing is so amazing. Like, I should be dead. And I don't mean that dramatically or with any sort of sadness. It's just a fact. Five hundred years ago my tumor would have killed me and my tombstone would have read: David Lee Nelson, 1478-1517, Died of Ye Olde Stomach Cramps.

But because of medical advancements I'm here. It's unbelievable. The fact that people know how to cut other people open, remove parts of our bodies, and sew us back up without killing us. The fact that there is medicine that can run through our veins to stop mutant cells from spreading while we sit in chairs that lean back, staring at handheld, insanely powerful computers that also make phone calls, all while people are rubbing our feet and asking what color we want our nails!? Are you serious???

It's fucking amazing.

May 22

One of the side effects of chemo is a fanny pack. That's right...a fanny pack.

I get three different bags of medicine. Avastin is first, that drips for 10 minutes. Then there is the Oxaliplatin. That goes for two hours. Then I get the 5FU and that goes for 46 hours. Which means when I go home I'm still hooked up to my IV. Since I can't be hooked up to a pole for two days, the bag of 5FU lives in a fanny pack.

The first few hours are fine. After chemo, I feel like I have the flu, so the fanny pack is the least of my concerns. By hour 40, however, I'm staring at the thing like Jack Nicholson looked at his family in The Shining.

What is it about this little pouch that can turn a mild-mannered writer into a raving lunatic in less than two days?

First off, it's always with you. It's just there. It's like that assignment in home economics when they make you take an egg home and carry it around for a week so you'll know what it's like to have a baby. Except if you break your baby egg you can just get another one out of the fridge. If I break my chemo bag, I have to put on a hazmat suit and call the hospital.

And what the fuck do I do with it? Sometimes I wear it over my shoulder like a satchel. Sometimes I wear it around my waist. Sometimes I take it off and carry it around like a pizza box. Sometimes I put it on a stick and pretend like I'm a hobo.

Then there is the cord. I try and keep it tucked away, but I would say at least five times in a 46 hour span it gets stuck on a knob and I get jerked back like I'm in some sort of slap stick comedy. Like this fanny pack is my rascally sidekick always getting me into crazy situations. Like it's the Balki to my Larry Appleton and this is some weird episode of Perfect Strangers.

Davey and Fanny Pack: Now we are so happy, we do the dance of joy!

Side bar: I don't care if that reference aged me. Those actors are brilliant and that show was amazing.

Oh, and the noise. The chemo is hooked up to a little machine that times its release. Every time it releases the medicine — it makes a click. It's fine if you are running errands or watching television, but I write. In my office. Alone. And that click is constant. Much like the twitch in my right eye that starts around hour 14.

Every 10 seconds: Click, click, click.

[Davey puts on his hazmat suit. Pulls out an ax. Stabs fanny pack.]

End of play.

Finally — it's a fucking fanny pack. And yes, it's medicine that will keep me alive and yes, I'm thankful but come on! There wasn't any better option? Those things have never been in style. You can't even make it cool ironically. There are hipsters out there rocking nut huggers and mesh tank tops who wouldn't be caught dead in a fanny pack. There are grown men out there wearing the athletic jerseys of other grown men who are like "A fanny pack? And cover my Tom Brady jersey?"

There are fucking frat bros wearing fucking ROMPERS who are like "Look at the dork with the fanny pack."

I know it's a small price to pay and way better than the alternative. But if in five years I see a fanny pack and start screaming "Here's Davey" you'll know why.

May 25

"How you doing?"

That is a question all of us get all the time. It's only a formality. The only appropriate answer is "Fine." Can you imagine going into work, seeing the person in the cubicle next to you, saying "How you doing" and they actually answer you? You're standing there like "Oh, this is horrible. This person thinks I care about them."

One of the side effects of having cancer is that now when people ask me how I'm doing they actually seem to want to know the answer.

I can tell because when they say it, it's less of a question and more of a statement. They're like, "How are you doing." Period. Complete with a downward inflection and a touch on the wrist.

I still respond with "fine" but I tend to say it as a question. Like "Fine? I think? Do you know something I don't know?"

What does "fine" even mean? I've heard it's actually an acronym. It means Fucked-Up, Insecure, Neurotic, Evasive. Which sounds fairly accurate.

But the odd thing is I feel more fine now than I have in years. Sure, I feel like shit after I get chemo, but on my off weeks I feel pretty normal. And normal feels great because I know in a week and a half I'm going to feel like shit again, so I enjoy my days that much more.

Being not fine for a while makes you appreciate how wonderful fine actually is.

Before my surgery, for two straight months, I felt horrible. I could barely eat. I couldn't really go anywhere. I was whimpering or crying out in pain 10-15 times a day. Then I had surgery. And even with words like "cancer" and "stage 4," I was like "Wow, I can eat! I feel fine! This is amazing!"

And cancer has drastically altered my perspective. Before my diagnosis my mind was always so far in the future. What was I going to do with my life? Where is my next job coming from? What is the next play I'm going to write? City I'm going to live in? My life always felt like something that was gonna start as soon as I got the right gig or reached a certain level of fame or had enough money in the bank. This life I was living now was just the rehearsal to what was about to come. When everything would be perfect.

But then ... cancer. A disease that can kill me. And I've got to get treatment so it will go into remission so I can stay alive. That life in the future, that life to come, might not ever get here. This, now, is my life, not some sort of practice run until I get my sitcom. And the thing is I've actually had it pretty awesome this whole time. The prospect of losing my life made me realize how much I liked it.

Do I have all the money I want? No.

Am I as successful as I want? No.

Do I have everything I need? Yes.

How am I doing?

Just fine.

To follow David Lee Nelson's blog, visit davidleenelson.com.


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