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Joe Piscopo - Making Every Day Worth It

by Julie McKenna

For over two decades, celebrities have entrusted Coping® to tell the world about their personal experience with cancer. We are proud to present this exclusive interview from our archives and hope that it will inspire and encourage all who read it. This article was originally published in Coping with Cancer magazine, November/December 2001.

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

Joe Piscopo has enjoyed success with projects in many fields including television, film, theater, and nightclubs, as well as with various charities, including Jersey Joe's Gyms and The Positive Impact Foundation. Many of us know Joe best from his hilarious original characters and celebrity impersonations on Saturday Night Live during the early 1980s, such as The Sports Guy, Doug Whiner, David Letterman and Frank Sinatra. Joe feels that a good part of his success in life and with helping others is due to being a thyroid cancer survivor.

As I interview Joe, he points out that he is grateful for many things, such as celebrating his 20th anniversary as a cancer survivor, but mostly for his family. He feels fortunate to have survived cancer without any complications, allowing him to pursue his career and spend time with loved ones. As he talks about his family, his little girl, Alexandra, chatters away about the fascinating things she is finding on the ground, making Joe laugh with affection.

In 1981, Joe did not have any symptoms prior to his diagnosis - he was having a regular check-up when his doctor, feeling Joe's throat, said, "You've got a little tumor in there." Joe, unable to believe it, responded with a chuckle, "Get outta here!"

In December of 1981, doctors took out half of his thyroid. It was frightening for Joe because they had to use a large needle in his neck to perform the biopsy. When the doctor told him not to move while the needle was in his throat, Joe, ever the comedian, replied with, "Yeah, I was thinking about dancing here, Doc, - What do you think?" The biopsy came back benign, but a friend attending New York University suggested that he get a second opinion. It was then that they discovered medullary carcinoma encapsulated in a tumor. Fortunately, it did not require further surgery or treatment.

Having just begun his career with Saturday Night Live, Joe did not want to tell anyone he had cancer.

After that, Joe discovered some of the prejudices associated with cancer survivors. His insurance agent, who was also a friend, told him that he would not be able to insure Joe anymore because he had cancer. He also informed him that if he died of any kind of cancer he would not be covered. Although many policies have changed since then, some discrimination still occurs today. "That's why I have such compassion for cancer patients and AIDS patients because of the prejudice you have to go through," says Joe. Having just begun his career with Saturday Night Live, Joe did not want to tell anyone he had cancer, fearing he would face further prejudices at work.

Joe left Saturday Night Live in 1985 when, after his divorce, he realized he wanted to spend more time with his son, Joey. Joe remarried in 1997 and he and his wife, Kimberly, now have a daughter, Alexandra. "It really draws focus to every day," Joe tells me. "I wake up now, Julie, and I'm the kind of guy who thinks, Hey! I'm out of bed! I made it through another day!"

When I ask Joe if, despite having survived 20 years with no recurrences, he still thinks about the possibility of it coming back, he quickly replies, "Absolutely. Every day." Joe has a new perspective on his life: "Every day is golden. Every day is icing on the cake. I'm sure I irritate people because of my positive attitude, but you have to appreciate every single day."

Joe continues by emphasizing that he doesn't take anything for granted. Surviving 20 years without a recurrence has not made him remiss in getting check-ups - just the opposite. He regularly schedules a physical, calcitonin test, PSA test and a colonoscopy. "I do all the preventive measures that you have to do. And the doctors make sure I do it because of my past history."

Undoubtedly, Joe knows having cancer has made a difference in his life. "I think I became a better person. It makes you concentrate on those less fortunate than you. That's why I started The Positive Impact Foundation that helps at-risk kids," Joe says. "If I didn't go through cancer, I never would have seen the light. I would never think of helping those less fortunate."

As Joe reflects on 20 years of survivorship and his professional and personal accomplishments, his daughter giggles with delight, making Joe laugh, too. "You see, Julie, just like that, I can see my daughter looking at two Daddy Long-Legs walking around, and that right there makes the day worth it."

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

For more information about Joe, visit www.joepiscopo.com, which includes an introduction from Frank Sinatra.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2001.