An article From “Israel Hayom – Shishabat” – 01.05.2015
The Cancer that Died of Laughter – Bat-Hen Epshtein Elias
Four years ago, when he was 31, the comedian Eyal Eltawil found out he had cancer. Instead of falling into depression, he started documenting the treatments, coping with the disease and mainly the jokes and laughter, which were a significant part of it. Now, after recovering, He launches a new stand-up show
When I heard I had a 20 cm growth in my stomach, I was shocked. First of all, 20 cm is insane. In order to get it out I didn’t need a surgeon, I needed a midwife. People ask me how I found it. So I would like to set things straight for once. A 20 cm growth – you don’t discover. I am the first one in history whose growth went to the doctor and said: “They found an Eltawil, how do I get rid of him?”
(Taken from Eyal Eltawil’s new stand-up show)
Eyal Eltawil stands in front of the audience with a smile. It’s been almost 3 years since he found out the treatments were successful, and that he doesn’t have cancer anymore. And now he stands here, in a completely packed lecture room, talking in the funniest possible way about the worst of things. And the crowd laughs. It seems you can laugh at the disease that a lot of people can’t even say out loud.
Eyal also didn’t call it by name, he changed it so that the audience would feel more comfortable. Yes, there is something more relaxing in hearing a different name, rather than to repeat the word “cancer” dozens of times.
From the moment he discovered the growth was malignant. In mid-March 2011, Eyal took a video camera and started documenting. The main location was his hospitalizing rooms in Beilinson hospital. He documented the nerve-racking wait for the test results, the needle penetrating the vain during the chemotherapy, the moment during surgery when the doctors cleared every possible thing from his abdomen. His friends and family, who never left his side, and the jokes, an inseparable part of him, which he tried to integrate through the whole process in order to survive, made his journey bearable. In the last months he decided to take everything he went through and pass it to the audience in the funniest way possible; that’s how his new stand-up show, “The Cancer that Died of Laughter”, was born.
“I think the real reason I’ve gone through with the show now, is that I was truly frightened. All of my life I looked at things humorously, and at the time of the disease I needed to step it up and laugh even more, so I could learn to deal with this thing. Looking back, it’s great that I had the ability to laugh about it. Because I don’t believe I would have survived without humor.
There are various studies that show that humor releases Endorphins, which help the body get better and heal and that the body has a much harder time dealing when you’re down. I know it helped me very much. The fact that I filmed everything, and laughed, gave me the feeling like I was on stage. The humor gives a lot, but let’s face it – I also had a lot of luck. You can’t ignore that.”
He is 36 (“Hoping to be 37 in August, but who knows”), was raised in Hertzliya, and living in a small 1 bedroom apartment in Tel-Aviv. Hanging on the walls of his apartment are empowering posters, which changed the way he dealt with his sickness. “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot” (Charlie Chaplin), or “Living is the rarest thing in the world. Most people only exist, that is all” (Oscar Wilde). During the treatments those posters were hanging in every corner, now they are engraved in his heart. In 2 weeks, when he moves to a bigger apartment in Givatayim, he won’t need to hang them up anymore.
It all started from scorching stomach aches. Eyal, who was after studying 3 years in acting school at the Yoram Levinstein Studio, was working as a stand-up comedian, writing for major TV shows, creating and performing. He went to a specialist, and then to another one, until two months later, they realized he had a growth.
“I had my first surgery with Professor Hanoch Kashtan, head of the surgical department at Beilinson Hospital. I came to him and said I had read the book “The Journey”, a guide for healing and relaxation. It amazed me that some people were able to get rid of their growths. I wanted to try it myself. He said he would agree, as long as I promised that if in three weeks we did not see any improvement in the CT, or if I had any pain – I would have to undergo surgery. He is an incredible man, aside from the fact that we don’t like the same sports teams.”
“I believe in the connection between body and spirit, so I started meditating and participated in spiritual workshops, all kinds of things that helped me slow down the pace of life, to try and heal. Two weeks later, when I was still agonizing with pain, I almost walked at 90 degrees from not being able to hold myself straight. I called Prof. Kashtan.”
A few days later Eyal went through surgery, during which the doctors removed the tumor entirely and made sure there were no visible metastases. “After I woke up, Prof. Kashtan told me two things: First – that the tumor was humongous. Second – that the whole tumor was ripped apart and looked like it was crumbling. It made me think that maybe, if I would have continued with the alternative treatments, I could have made it disappear. I am not sure of it, because you really need to be in a very high level of awareness and ability to take care of yourself, and I am not telling anyone to try and get rid of tumors without conservative treatments, but I do believe it made a difference.”
“Eyal’s coping amazed me as well”, says Prof. Kashtan. “He has an incredible personality. He knows how to deal with a difficult disease with an open mind and full awareness, while having a great sense of humor and ability to make people laugh.”
Two months after that surgery, the stomach aches returned., and the blood tests showed the disease was back as well. Three months later it was confirmed that Eyal had Ewing Sarcoma – bone cancer.
“It’s a children’s cancer, most people get it before they turn 18”, says Eyal. “I got it at the age of 31. I believe it’s because I repressed my entire childhood. Not that I had some kind of trauma growing up, but I was hyperactive at a time when it wasn’t the thing. I went to see shrinks, I got Ritalin, and I was insecure. Then, at 31, I got children’s cancer, and I got sent to an oncology specialist at Beilinson Hospital, Dr. Alona Zer. She is also my co-star in the videos I present during the show.”
“Just before the surgery to get the tumor out, I had to go through an emergency MRI test, and my HMO wouldn’t approve it, because it’s too expensive. They told my mom: ‘Mrs. Eltawil, you can pay for the test, and if they’ll find something critical, we’ll refund you’. Can you imagine the call right after the test? ‘Mrs. Eltawil? Hi. We just wanted to let you know that you’ll be getting your 5,000 Shekels back! Now you’ll have money to bury your son. No, don’t thank us, have a nice funeral.” (From the show)
The chemotherapy sessions lasted four months and were successful, all in front of his personal video camera. During this time, he had by his side his mother Myriam (74), his father Benny (78), his sister Meital (33) and his brother Erez (35). Besides the conventional treatments, he went through alternative ones, became a vegan, meditated, and had “Teta Healing” sessions – a spiritual method in which you work on very high levels of cognition to influence your life.
“Side by side with the regular treatments, I started treatments in the alternative unit at Beilinson. The advantage is that they have your file and they know everything you’ve gone through, so they can fit a plan that doesn’t contradict the conventional treatment you get.”
But still, he needed more treatments, not all of them in the health program. “When you’re sick, and you can’t work, you get a very small amount of allowance from Social Security. Suddenly you don’t have enough money to live. For instance, I needed a second opinion from out of Israel, and sending the biopsy costs several thousands of Shekels. My friend, Vered Feldman, suggested we have a fundraiser, but I refused. I didn’t want handouts.
Vered is familiar with cancer. Her mother, Bilha, had it, and she told me about Katie Byron’s method, of loving what you have and accepting everyone for who they are. She died a month prior to the discovery of my tumor. So Vered knew the process. After realizing the need for money, I came around. In the middle of all the treatments, my friends held a fundraiser for me.”
The benefit, that took place on July 2011, was the first time Eyal told jokes and he wrote about dealing with the disease. He stood by the microphone, skinny, hairless, and scared, laughed at the presents he got from his friends, the attention from everyone around him, and about the fact that hey – we’re all going to die. He managed to raise a few tens of thousands Shekels that were enough to fund all the treatments. The chemotherapy rounds had ended, and he was feeling positive. But then he found out about the metastases, and that he needed another surgery, bone marrow transplant and radiations. His recovery chances dropped down.
“With all the humor and healthy approach to life, I was crushed.” He lies back in his chair, taking a deep breath. “Total breakdown. I didn’t feel like doing anything, I lost the belief that I was going to get better, I was devastated. For two weeks I had done nothing. I didn’t write, didn’t film, I didn’t laugh. I had surgery – self bone-marrow transplant, which is a very hard procedure. You’re in solitary most of the time, no immune system, you can get sick from anything, and it’s very hard to go on. And almost nobody can visit you.
“After that, when they moved me out of solitary, everybody was there for me. My friends, my family, I never had one minute to myself. It’s very important for the recovery, having someone by your side, until you wear yourself out and manage to get a little sleep. At some point I realized I need to pick myself up, and I went back to laughing about it. I took homoeopathic pills, meditated, I went to the extreme. I had my doubts about whether or not to have radiations, because it radiates to the abdomen directly, and it’s not always accurate. But, after thinking about it, I understood that if I got this far, I had better end it right. So I did.
“They are all there for you, waiting on you from dawn till dark. There was a time during the treatments that I felt bad that I might die. I told myself – so many people are invested in me, it would be really irresponsible for me to die now” (From the show)
He is an open man, theatrical, trying to act out every feeling and every thought. He doesn’t back down from tough questions, glad to put a mirror in front of himself in an attempt to understand better the reasons for what he is doing, for why the disease is his main job right now.
“There is something comfortable in filming, writing. It’s like you don’t deal with the disease on a daily basis, it’s just something on the way. It gave me meaning. I ran into people that don’t talk about cancer, that won’t even say that word. I had someone in a bed next to me that couldn’t tell his family. He died alone.
I believe there is a big difference between a sick person, and a person with a sickness. If you define yourself as sick, it means that something suddenly dropped on you, and you drop with it. If you live with a disease, it’s part of your routine.”
After he recovered, he decided to leave the whole cancer subject alone; the camera, the video editing, the writing. “I helped other stand-up comedians, but I didn’t touch the cancer materials. I couldn’t contain it anymore. I felt that if I have to look it in the eyes once more, I’ll crash. I couldn’t handle it all. Until then, I never cried alone; only in front of the camera. I was in a kind of play, acting, not really handling things from inside.”
“It went on for a year. I felt I needed to get away. I wanted to understand what I had been through, to contain it. I tried to get people to laugh through regular stand-up, but I realized I wasn’t up to it. I didn’t feel like laughing at relationships, at living with my parents and such subjects, which are good, I don’t undermine them, but not at that particular time. I told myself I had to pass on what I’d been through, with humor, to others.
“Cancer is a very frustrating disease, and very painful. You can get it and cry, and you can take a more positive approach and laugh. I preferred looking at it as another step in life, a step to something bigger.”
After making the decision, he sat down to write. For eight months he would get back from his day job as a show manager at a production company, and write. He poured out ideas and memories and experiences, with sarcastic remarks about life and its situation, and editing the videos. Then he started performing with the show, adding more and more acts, studying the crowd to see what worked.
It sounds like the disease is what defines you today.
“I don’t think it is what defines me, because I do other stuff as well. But there is something very substantial about what I went through during the disease and the recovery that made me who I am today. It’s like a suddenly rich poor man. Once you are sick, you see life more clearly. There is no time for games, because you really could die every day. There is no time to say ‘it doesn’t feel right’ or ‘I’m not going to do that’, because you realize it’s now or never.
“In our day to day life, we repress any thought of death. But now I want to deal with it. There is something in my nature that needs to feel like I’m saving the world, that I’m making it a better place. And if I can help changing people’s attitude, through humor – then I am doing something right.”
“Unlike normal life, when you have cancer nobody expects anything from you. Not to succeed, not to have children, not to get married, no nothing, only to survive. People get in to your room in the morning: “Great! He’s still alive! If you are still breathing the next day, you’ll get a balloon!” (From the show)
In the show he laughs about everything; the friends that try to console in every possible way, the advantages of being sick, and the fears, because “eventually, cancer is not recommended, to anyone.”
During the show early this week in Tel Aviv, one of the women laughed very loudly. “I had cancer long before you”, she throws in his face, and the crowd laughs. Eyal laughs too. He realizes he could even make somebody who was there before him laugh.
“I feel this show is for everybody. I talk about cancer, but it’s an allegory to all the little obstacles in life. Eventually, when I realized that the cancer was just another obstacle that was my breakthrough. I am not looking for one-liners, I want to bring something extra, and something the audience can go home with. A realization that humor can help contain the most horrible things.”
It’s not something that’s easy to sell to the general public.
“That’s true. People are afraid to attend something like this. I invited a good friend of mine to see it, but he never came. Every time he gave me a different excuse. I was offended. I asked him what’s going on. He finally told me he just couldn’t handle it. Hearing the word ‘cancer’ made him anxious. I convinced him to make an effort. He came and laughed, but it was still very hard for him. I can accept that. I know it’s hard. I had a hard time dealing with it myself, but I want to show people that ‘cancer’ is not a scary word.
“One of my friends came up to me after a show and said he was sorry, that he never saw me sad during the disease, and he didn’t know what I went through up to now. He apologized for not talking to me about the important daily things, the rocky road. I told him that the fact he was there, was what helped me recover.
“A doctor came to one of my shows and heard me talking about the way doctors treat patients. He came up to me and told me he suddenly understood the patient’s side. That’s the biggest thing, in my eyes.”