Reflections on living with cancer
Not many people can say they were discovered on Broadway. Even fewer can say their cancer was discovered on Broadway. But that's exactly where veteran actor and comedian Arte Johnson was in 1997 when, due to an unusual set of circumstances, he realized that something wasn't right.
"I was doing Candide with Hal Prince at the Gershwin Theater," Johnson remembers. "I was doing eight shows a week and playing several different roles. My family doctor, who had come to see the show, turned to me and said, 'You're really working hard. I never expected anybody to work that hard at your age.' It was more a chronological question than it was a physical question."
Arte told his doctor that he felt well, adding that he had noticed a slight swelling under an arm one night but that it had gone away immediately. Not liking the sound of the actor's reply, the physician referred Johnson to another doctor in New York. "He looked me over, sat me down, and said to my wife and me, 'Somehow, I think you have lymphoma.' It didn't bother me at the time. I said, 'So what do we do about it?' And that was the sum total."
A CAT scan showed a growth in Johnson's right lung behind his heart, tucked out of sight of a traditional x-ray. "Ostensibly, I came back to Los Angeles from New York to have the benign tumor removed," Arte recalls. "That's when they discovered the lymphoma."
As one of his Emmy-winning Laugh-In characters might have said, "Verry interresting ... but stupid!"
Hoping to head off speculation, Johnson took his story to the media. "My own admission was used in one of the tabloids," he explains. "It was at the time of Princess Diana's death, and they were trying to get a respectable story after all that had happened. I came out of the closet, in a sense, with their agreement that they would utilize it in a positive way - and they did."
Unfortunately, not everyone took the news so well. Johnson had reached an accord regarding a work agreement and was shocked to find that, "Upon discovery that I had cancer, this party withdrew its offer." As one of his Emmy-winning Laugh-In characters might have said, "Verry interresting ... but stupid!"
This knee-jerk reaction was taken in stride by Johnson, who had faced real life challenges growing up on a farm in southern Michigan. "It's understandable in a sense, given the expense of doing a production," he says. "Much of cancer is still a mystery. But on the other hand, to discover that suddenly you're on the outside looking in because of something you have no control over is rough.
"There's a genuine fear about cancer," Johnson admits. "I've had people say, 'Will you still kiss your wife?' You look at them and say, 'Yeah. Why?' and they say, 'Aren't you afraid?' You say, 'Afraid of what?' Some people still think you're dealing with a communicable disease."
As a regular on the cancer survivors speakers circuit, Johnson, whose film credits include The Third Day, The President's Analyst and many others, is part of a growing community of survivors. He considers such people to be the greatest weapon America has to fight ignorance about cancer. "You say 'cancer' and some people immediately go into a complete tailspin," he says; "but the truth of the matter is that there are an awful lot of people surviving cancer."
"He looked me over, sat me down, and said to my wife and me, 'Somehow, I think you have lymphoma.' "
An avid travel buff, the veteran funnyman has taken several cruises since being diagnosed with cancer, "I run into so many people who are survivors," he notes, "and they have a very positive attitude. You just handle it as it comes. You take it day by day."
Johnson has performed in front of countless audiences since making his Broadway debut in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He has worked as a sportscaster and has appeared with such diverse groups as the San Francisco Opera and the Grand Ole Opry. But when it came to his own recovery, Arte preferred an individual approach. While support groups and self-help books are useful for many, these did not appeal to the California resident while he was undergoing treatment.
"Somebody sent me a carton full of books on cancer," he recalls. "I didn't want to read about it; I was living it." Instead, the talented performer surrounded himself with amusing books, jazz and his best friend, his wife of 30 years. "She was like the iron maiden during this whole thing," he boasts, "and it was only after everything cleared up that she became weighed down by the whole experience." Continuous support from her own friends helped her rebound.
Although Johnson did not participate in organized support groups, he did not sequester himself from life. "During the course of chemotherapy, I lost all my hair," he says, "but I didn't mind. We maintained a social life. We went out." This worked so well for him that Johnson heartily recommends it for other survivors. "Instead of pulling into yourself and locking yourself into the bed, get out. Sit outside. Watch the birds. Listen to the rustling of the leaves. There are so many things to life. You are alive until you die. While you're living, enjoy every moment!"
Arte Johnson's interest in performing remains, but he's "not pursuing it that valiantly. Cancer changes your outlook on life," he says. "I have more respect for life, and more enjoyment of it now." His last CAT scan was clear and Johnson doesn't expect a recurrence. However, if that were to happen, "I'll be there to fight it," he insists.
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This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 1999.