Joel Siegel - Good Morning America's
Rated "C" for Cancer
by Julie McKenna
If you want to know which movies are worth seeing, Joel Siegel’s the guy to ask. Does the SpongeBob SquarePants Movie hold water? Is National Treasure worth its weight in gold? Joel will tell you. As the entertainment critic for ABC’s Good Morning America, he knows about movies. He also knows about what it’s like to be a new parent and a newly diagnosed cancer patient at the same time.
In the summer of 1997, Joel and his wife, Ena, were confronted with the knowledge that cancer would play a role in their family from day one. “I was diagnosed with colon cancer one week after we found out we were pregnant, and the day we took our son home was my last day of chemotherapy,” recalls Joel.
Joel’s cancer metastasized to his left lung when his son, Dylan, was two, and then to his right lung when Dylan was three-and-a-half. The question of what and how much to tell your child is one of the hardest questions a newly diagnosed parent will face.
“The way we raise children and the way we look at childhood is very different now than it was in my generation,” Joel explains. “When I was a little kid no one I knew had cancer. Nobody even said ‘cancer’ – everybody whispered it. And now I think it’s important that we be honest about it so our children can understand.”
Joel got advice from Ann Pleshette Murphy, a friend and child psychologist at Good Morning America. In addition to suggesting several books that would help Dylan understand what it meant to have cancer, Anne gave him a “doctor kit” for kids complete with a blood pressure cuff and scrubs.
I think it’s important that we be honest about it so our children can understand.
When Ena brought Dylan to the hospital to visit Joel, Dylan wore his scrubs and took the blood pressure of everyone he met at the hospital. “He walked around the hospital wearing those little green scrubs like he knew what was going on. It was great,” laughs Joel. “Although, I think it was much more important for me to see him than it was for him to see me.”
For Joel, recovering from cancer meant going back to work – even while he was still undergoing treatment. Joel went on the air and conducted interviews as he had always done, even though there were days when he literally stumbled off stage from fatigue. “I went to work. I don’t know how I did it,” muses Joel. “After the original surgery I had a colostomy and I was on chemo and radiation. Then my hair started to fall out so I had to wear a wig. I interviewed Billy Crystal and his manager said to me, ‘Well, at least you kept your hair,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, you want it?’ And I took my wig off and handed it to him!”
With Joel’s diagnosis came the realization that he would not always be around for Dylan, whether it was because of cancer or not. There were many things he wanted to tell Dylan about himself and his family history, which is why he decided to write the book, Lessons for Dylan: On Love, Life, the Movies, and Me.
Joel got the idea for writing the book from memories of when he lost his first wife, Jane, to a cancerous brain tumor in 1982. “After Jane died I would go through her books looking for notes she had written on the margins,” recalls Joel. “I found a sketchbook that she had written in – I had no idea she was writing it. I just needed to know that we had been together, that she had been here, and that she loved me.”
Joel published Lessons for Dylan in 2003 when Dylan was five years old. “It was all worthwhile when Dylan saw the cover of the book,” Joel says. “He knew I’d been writing a book, but actually seeing it finished allowed him to truly comprehend what it was. He looked at me and said, ‘Who else’s daddy ever wrote him a book!’”
Joel continues, “I think when a parent is diagnosed they should sit down and write something to their child, and if they’re not comfortable writing to their child, they should record it on a tape recorder. Just put it away someplace where the child will find it. This is especially important for a child that might lose a parent, or for a child who is going through the trauma of having a parent who is not well. Because no matter what happens, we can live on in the memories of the people who knew us.”
If you want to know what movie to see, Joel is the guy who knows. If you want his views on being a parent with cancer, he says, “It’s hard to give advice without sounding like a greeting card. But the truth is, the greeting cards are right,” Joel jokes. “When you’re dealing with cancer, you have to emphasize the positive.” Now, that’s a review we can live with.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2005.