Inappropriate. Hilarious. Absolutely inspiring.
Talk to Support Volunteer Phil for more than five minutes, and those words are likely to spring to mind. From jokes about blue ice falling from airplanes to slightly ribald riffs on cancer treatment, Phil’s entire approach to survivorship has been based around a zest for life and love of humor.
Today, at 89, he’s an active member of The Improvables, an improv comedy troupe based in New Jersey. He and his wife of 36 years volunteer as standardized patients for medical and PT students at UMDNJ. Oh, and he had triple bypass surgery last year.
“It could be cat scratch fever or it could be cancer,” Phil recalls his doctor telling him during a 1992 visit. “Turns out, it was cancer. I went in for a biopsy on Thursday and they said we’d have the results the following Tuesday. Six days later, I hadn’t heard anything and assumed I was ok. I returned a call to my doctor and he tells me, over the phone, that I had cancer. I felt like I’d been hit in the head by a two–by–four. It was definitely the strangest moment I’ve had in my life.“
I was sitting in front of my television, not paying attention, thinking ‘I’m gonna die. I’m gonna die.’ over and over again. Then, it hit me like an anvil in a cartoon: ‘Hey, Hochman, you have control over this. You control how you handle this.”
“I hugged my wife, kissed her, we cried together and I rolled over and went to sleep. If I was going to go through this crap, I was going to make it an adventure. Every time I’d go in, I’d see how I could drive the nurses crazy.”
Beginning with chemo to treat his Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1992, through multiple re-diagnoses and other health challenges, he is determined to enjoy every moment of life he’s given. And he’s equally determined to bring those around him along for the ride. “With cancer, there’s never a complete cure. For me, it’s been a series of relapse and remission. There’s always one cell hiding somewhere. I treat it like a chronic condition. I don’t sweat it anymore.”
It’s a message he shares with the patients he’s matched with through CHN. “Everyone worries about dying from cancer. You have to live your life as best you can.”
Two years after his diagnosis, Phil took a comedy improv course at McCarter Theater. He hit it off with Johnny Mac (“He’s like a second son to me now.”), won a few contests and open mic nights and has been hooked ever since. He joined The Improvables in the early aughts and won the chance to do 10 minutes on Catch a Rising Star in 2011. He continues doing regular shows with The Improvables and on his own, including gigs at Stress Factory and an appearance on the LoLo Radio Show in 2016.
Late last year, Phil and his wife Karen celebrated 36 years of marriage. To hear him tell it, she has the patience of a saint. “When I was having my heart attack, nobody panicked. I was worried about putting this lady through all this crap, but nobody panicked,” he recalls. “She’s the love of my life, my best friend. She’s everything. I’m a very very lucky man.”
Need a laugh? Looking for some encouragement through a tough diagnosis or into survivorship? Get matched with Phil – or another Support Volunteer who has been where you are? Click HERE or call 877-HOPENET (877-467-3638) today.
Sarah Miretti Cassidy is the Director of Marketing & Patient Outreach for Cancer Hope Network.