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Coping with cancer through comedy

David Lee Nelson reluctantly rings the bell after his first round of chemotherapy knowing that maintenance treatments would start the following week and last “for years, hopefully” according to his doctor.
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Performer chronicles his battle in STAGES

The Osler Society of the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell hosted two performances on Oct. 4, 2018 of STAGES, a one-person autobiographical drama by David Lee Nelson.  Nelson, a writer, actor, and comedian was age 37 when diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer.  Two years later, and still fighting, Nelson uses humor, self-reflection, writing, and performance to cope with the horrors of his illness, keep a positive outlook, and enjoy being alive.

“The prospect of losing my life made me realize how much I like it,” said Nelson.

With stirring honesty, emotion, and great comedic timing, Nelson recounts the various chapters of his cancer experience, noting that his story has no clear beginning and no end—he does not know when, why or how he developed cancer and is currently undergoing a second series of chemotherapy treatments. He tells of how he reluctantly rang the bell at the chemotherapy center on the final day of his first series of treatments with the knowledge that maintenance treatments would start the following week and last “for years, hopefully” according to his doctor. Initially, Nelson refused to partake in the bell-ringing ritual, but he ultimately rang it, understanding that it was an important symbol of hope to his fellow patients at the center who look forward to these moments.

For Nelson, performing STAGES is not only a way to make a living, it also serves as crucial therapy through creativity. Writing, acting, and the ability to find humor in a struggle not only help him and others with cancer to cope but also enable him to communicate openly with loved ones and strangers at a loss for words about his cancer.  For audiences, it is an opportunity for education and insight into living with life-threatening illness.

“We learn about the importance for practitioners of being able to support their patients to make the most of their lives, their time, and their experiences in the face of a devastating diagnosis,” said Maya Alexandri, a second-year medical student at the Zucker School of Medicine. “Nelson’s play models a patient doing exactly what we, as practitioners, would hope our patients can achieve and points the way to how we might support our patients to achieve that same fulfillment he finds in sickness and in health.”

For more information about the Humanities in Medicine Program at the Zucker School of Medicine and upcoming events, visit medicine.hofstra.edu/humanities.

The Manhasset Press also wrote a story about the event, which can be found here.

Article written by Lisa Martin, JD, Director, Humanities in Medicine/Contracts and Communications Specialist

About the author

Adrienne Stoller

Adrienne Stoller is communications manager at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. For more information about news items or media inquiries, please send a message to Adrienne.M.Stoller@hofstra.edu or call 516-463-7585.

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