Fred Reiss' new book is 'Today Cancer, Tomorrow the World'
I haven’t even known Fred Reiss for a full minute, and I’m running my hands through his hair. To my surprise, it really is “baby soft.” And with a mind of its own, like dandelion fluff drifting atop his six-foot frame. If it wasn’t attached, it would surely float away.
It’s his “Star Fleet Commander hair,” he says, or more bluntly, his “chemo hair.” And he has reason to be proud of it.
Diagnosed with testicular cancer at the end of 2011, you would never guess that the 57-year-old local novelist is still recovering from a fight for his life—a reeling journey through surgery and being run over and dragged by four cycles (five days a week, eight hours a day each) of chemotherapy. Reiss has speckled blue eyes and the solid build of someone who paddles out a lot. Wearing an orange t-shirt, he’s as animated as his hair.
Thumbing through a copy of his new book, Today Cancer, Tomorrow The World, it’s clear that Reiss is in the second stage of that title, the one that says “put everything on the sandwich!” An avid surfer, he’s thinking today might be the day to get back out in the water.
“Life is a dream, then death is a wake up call,” he’s saying. “Death is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessary. You can outrank it.”
And that’s exactly what he did. But don’t make the mistake of calling the fight against cancer “positive.” According to Reiss, there’s nothing positive about it; it’s a fierce and ferocious battle. It’s painful.
“You have to find something in yourself that multiplies and divides faster than your cancer cells, so that you can be bigger than the disease,” he says.
For this surfer, radio personality, comedian, and author, that meant summoning every cell of his true being—humor, fearlessness, the written word, and, yes, boxing gloves—into the ring, er, Stanford Cancer Center.
His book and blog document the entire brutal journey with eloquent honesty and his signature gruff sense of humor. He did it because he knew he wanted to look back on it later. And because, as low as he was, he was inspired.
“It was like all of a sudden I was an antenna, and I was receiving all these images and insights and phrases that were coming to me because of what I was going through, and I knew that there was no way once I got out of this that I’d recall them,” says Reiss.
So he recorded it all, from his frustration with uncompassionate oncologists, to baffling the nurses with his one-liners (“I’m a walking vibrator” he’d tell them after getting his second testicle removed, and he stuck “Lower Pelvic Cellars” wine labels on his urine bags), to vivid accounts of the nightmares of chemotherapy. He writes about how he fielded calls from a debt collector when he was sick, broke, and unable to keep up with astronomical hospital bills. it’s all there. It’s strange to think you could laugh at a book all about cancer, but you can.
But the book doubles as a tool for anyone fighting their own battle with cancer, (and he keeps the eBook version cheap for them.) You have to advocate for your own optimal care, he says, because if you don’t ask, they won’t tell you.
“They don’t tell you that chemo goes after your nerves—neuropathy, it’s called,” says Reiss, of the condition that rendered his hands and feet too numb to use. “The bottom line is that they can hydrate your chemo with minerals that might lessen the effects. It’s not a cure-all, but my take is, you charge me how many thousands of dollars for chemo? Put a little sugar in my coffee, put in a little extra cream!”
Nor do they tell you that you can have the chemo administered through a “medical port” in your chest, an option that keeps your hands free for boxing gloves and blogging.
“If you know anybody who has marijuana, get some. It helps food taste better,” a nurse told him. And it did, in a way. “It enabled me to pan for flavor shards between the shrapnel metallic tinge of my chemo-altered taste buds,” writes Reiss. It also helped him sleep through the nights when nothing else did.
Now that the battle is won, Reiss is noticing changes in himself. Aside from a newfound dislike for junk food and clutter, he’s turning his attention outward again.
“I remember talking to this guy who was just going into chemo, and after he talked to me his eyes were gleaming and he was smiling, and I thought ‘you know, he's going into a dark place, and I gave him something,’” says Reiss. “I didn't anticipate that. That's better than any wave I caught, better than any laugh I ever got.”