Dan Shapiro, Ph.D., was 20 years old when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. For the next five years, he says his treatment spanned more than a dozen hospitals across four states, nine individual surgeries and “more chemotherapy and radiation than one person should be able to enjoy.” And, as is often the case with patients battling cancer, his diagnosis affected not only himself, but everyone close to him as well. “It flipped our world upside down,” says Shapiro, a professor of psychiatry at Penn State College of Medicine.
Though facing a potentially terminal illness was certainly nothing to laugh about, Shapiro says that “humor was a helpful way of dealing with the absurdity” that accompanied the shifting world-view that resulted from the disease. “For example,” Shapiro says, “my anti-drug mother grew a massive crop of a weed she despised in our backyard, and that was bizarre and absurd.” He says he also once taped pennies to his chest in the shape of a smiley face before an x-ray and used “high-powered water guns to defend [himself] from rogue nurses and infectious disease physicians” during hospital stays.
He chronicled his personal experience with cancer in his first book, “Mom’s Marijuana” (Random House, 2000). Shapiro later adapted a portion of that book into a one-man, one-act play, “A Funny Thing Happened On My Way to Chemotherapy,” which he has since performed more than 350 times across the country. On Wednesday, March 30 at 7 p.m., Shapiro will bring his show to the Marriott University Park Hotel at Main Gate Square as the keynote performer for the seventh annual Cindy Wool Memorial Seminar on Humanism in Medicine. The seminar, which is presented by the Maimonides Society of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona in conjunction with the University of Arizona College of Medicine, was first held in 2010 with the help of Dr. Steven A. Wool along with family and friends as a way of honoring his wife, who died as a result of complications from acute leukemia in November 2008.
While Shapiro admits that there was indeed humor to be found in his personal battle with Hodgkin’s disease, he says he “didn’t write the book to be funny.” Rather, he says, “I wrote it more about the kinds of choices we make in the face of a major life crisis, and how we navigate those waters.” When you are looking for humor in a situation, “some of that navigation is funny,” he says, but naturally, “a lot of it isn’t.”
There is plenty about his talk that will appeal to the general public, but as chair and professor in the department of humanities at Penn State College of Medicine, where he is an Arnold P. Gold Professor of Medical Humanism, Shapiro says the show will likely have the most to offer current and aspiring medical professionals and students.
“It’s very hard to practice medicine now; harder than it has been for years,” and “physicians can get really grinded down by clinical practice” with the system structured as it is today, says Shapiro, who also serves as a consultant for the hit television shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and Private Practice.”
“I think the sea of patients that move through like an assembly line is in direct contrast to why docs went into practice in the first place,” Shapiro says. He suggests that the entire system — especially in the realms of electronic record-keeping and inter-practitioner communications — is probably due for an overhaul. “But while we work on that,” he says, “we can continue to remind them that their work is vitally important.”
Before the Wednesday night talk at the Marriot, a VIP reception will take place at 5:30 p.m. that includes dinner and tickets to the seminar for $100; tickets to the show alone are $18, or free for medical students. Tickets are available online at jfsa.org or by calling Karen Graham at 577-9393, ext. 118 by March 23. Shapiro will also speak at noon on March 30 in a special lecture event for the Arizona Health Sciences Center in the DuVal Auditorium at Banner-University Medical Center; medical students, faculty and staff should RSVP to Andrea Lopez in medical humanities at [email protected].
“Well-intentioned, well-trained physicians burn out in this system at incredibly high rates,” Shapiro says, but he hopes that his show can serve as a reminder of what drove them to study medicine while they were at their most enthusiastic.