Too often in this celebrity-obsessed culture we turn toward the rich and famous to be inspired. We read stories about Halle Berry’s beauty, Katherine Heigl’s new baby, Harrison Ford’s happiness, Donald Trump’s … eh, never mind.
The point is, we look far off into the Hollywood Hills for inspiration, when oftentimes it’s right here; right in front of us.
I have known Anne Stockwell for about 15 years. We met when she was the editor of The Advocate, and I was assigned a story about gay athlete acceptance in pro sports locker rooms. Over the next 1 1/2 decades we stayed in touch via social media and occasional e-mails, and I marveled at a strong, compassionate woman who was diagnosed with cancer on three different occasions—yet seemed to never really waver.
I promise, you will be inspired, too.
Anne is the founder and head of Well Again, a nonprofit operation that coaches people in the aftermath of being cancer free. “Cancer,” she writes on the website, “is profound. It’s not just medical. It’s not something you get over with chemo and radiation. Cancer also happens at the level of your soul. It gives you an opportunity to start new.”
JEFF PEARLMAN: I’m gonna start with this: You’re an openly gay woman. We have a 45thpresident who has a vice president who has been hostile toward gay rights. Trump, however, doesn’t really seem interested one way or the other. So how, in specific relation to gay rights, are you feeling right now about America?
ANNE STOCKWELL: It’s sort of like “Good Morning Heartache/ Sit down.” I know this stuff like an old movie. It’s devastating just like always, but it no longer surprises me.
I don’t think Trump is a homophobe, no. But he’s not an ally either, and that means he’s an enemy. His indifference gives Pence—a notorious homophobe—free range to do what he wants, knowing that, like Trump, most Americans just don’t want to think about us. Because people want us invisible, LGBT people remain among the easiest tribes to throw under the bus.
In all the media handwringing about why Trump ought to be more wary of Putin, have you read a word calling out Putin for his persecution of Russia’s LGBT people? Defending our own gay people and warning that America is not going to abandon us no matter what?
Yeah, didn’t think so.
I spent 15 years in the gay press, knowing that many hearts will never change. People fear us and that’s why they don’t want to know us better.
So is my task hopeless? Not at all. I’ve seen with my own eyes that occasionally a heart does change, and it’s always because some bit of new information got in through the cracks. Honest information is the best antidote to fear.
This same experience has helped me to understand why people don’t want to think about life beyond cancer.People fear us cancer vets. They don’t want to walk our path. We are taboo. It seems to be my destiny—forgive that lofty word—to bring the news that life in the taboo zone can be awesome.
J.P.: You’ve had cancer three times. Not once, not twice—three times. What is it to learn you have cancer, having survived it twice? Like, how did you find out? How was the news given to you? How did you digest it?
A.S.: Extremes of emotion in each case. The thing in common: the intensity. That roller coaster sensation when the pit of your gut drops away and you hear yourself screaming.
Episode One: The craziest thing. They said they thought it was cancer, and in that instant my life passed before my eyes. No other way to describe it. A rush of images, sequential AND simultaneous, flooded me with joy. Many pictures I’d forgotten. I saw that I loved my life. I was so much richer than I’d ever imagined, in friendship and connection and adventure. If this was the end, okay. But in this same apparently endless instant, I knew I wanted more. I thought, I’ll do my best and take what comes.
Then came episode two, and that was it for the heroics. Aside from the mortal-fear stuff, I felt like a big fat failure. Who was I kidding with the vitamins and crap? I’ve never been so angry in my life. Throughout that cycle of treatment, I raged on. I was fighting to secure a new job in a company that was in deep trouble. I kept at it. Every day I saw the image of a sailing ship in a gale, and myself an Ahab figure yelling, more canvas, more canvas, we won’t be beaten.
Episode three hit after the job ended. (My metaphorical ship had gone down after all.) This came way too soon after my previous recurrence. I went for a routine blood test and my numbers had shot up by like 100 points. They ordered a PET scan, which came back showing a number of new hot spots.
They’re not big enough to be tumors yet, my doctor said.
How many hot spots, I asked.
I couldn’t really count them, he said. We’ll test again in three months.
I thought, now I’m going to die. I started to read about death and what might or might not come afterward.
At that same time I met two guys, pretty much as unlike each other as you could imagine, and I think they pulled me through. One guy was a big jock, a football fanatic, who happened to be committed to metaphysics and prayer. He barked at me: “You’re fine, I got this, you’re in my prayers twice a day.” It was so ridiculously comforting, I started calling him up to hear him say it. The other guy, gay gay gay and Asian, was a tai chi master. His day job was doing feng shui for high-end clients all over the West Coast. He would arrive every few weeks and ask me to fetch him at Union Station—he didn’t have a driver’s license. While I ferried him around, he would tell me about how effective tai chi could be against cancer. He started showing me moves. Once he arrived from the Buddhist temple in San Francisco with a special prayer to ward off cancer. I learned it phonetically and still say it every night.
So—silliness, right? But after three months of these two guys all up in my business, I had my repeat PET scan. Where, before, my intestines had been dotted with nasty little cancer spots, now there were just two. Small, finite, eminently treatable.
So in I went for surgery, chemo, and radiation, on those two spots.
I finished treatment in 2010 and the cancer hasn’t been back since. What changed my condition? I’m not saying it was these guys and their spiritual stuff. But afterward our paths diverged and our relationships essentially ended. It did seem that they had shown up on cue.
The treatment itself was bearable, but at some point I noticed I was more comfortable in cancertown than in the outside world. I stopped imagining myself free of IT.
J.P.: You are the founder and head of “Well Again,” which coaches people in the aftermath of being cancer free. I’m fascinated, but I also don’t fully know what it means. I’d think, if you’re cancer free, you’d be happy and giddy and ready to roll? No?
A.S.: Well Again has evolved from my experience of what we lack as cancer vets reentering the world. Yes, of course, you’re happy, even giddy, when treatment ends. But you also know something you can never unknow: some invisible thing crept in and tried to kill you and might just do it again. Cancer generally doesn’t hurt. It just creeps.
The emotional blow of cancer tends to fall when we’re through treatment. My oncologist told me that this is when marriages break up.
All hell breaks loose in your inner world. Your own body tried to kill you. That is about as existential a threat as you can imagine.
Back in your civilian life, everybody looks at you funny, and no wonder; you’ve changed. Maybe you can’t keep numbers in your head the way you did. Or you hate the ice cream flavor you used to love. Who knows? Whatever it is, you’ll be navigating it alone. Friends and family won’t know how to help. Understandably, they’re like, when can we forget all this? Aren’t you past it now? There’s great pressure on you to get back to normal, and that’s the one thing you can’t do.
Suddenly all the bullshit you used to put up with is unbearable.
After treatment, our job is to resume our lives as individuals and pull ourselves out of the common medical experiences we shared. This is a lot more challenging than it seems. Once they’ve healed our bodies, our doctors turn away to heal others. We are left with invisible wounds that we don’t like to talk about in a clinic. The most profound wounds of cancer, I think, are spiritual.
You can try all you want to sweep this stuff under the rug and pretend that there’s no soul sickness to cancer. And by that I certainly DON’T mean you caused your cancer, or WANTED it, or any of that malarkey people like to spread around in Southern California.
I mean, the way cancer attacks, it hits your soul. You can’t ignore it, tell yourself it’s silly to be scared. It’s not silly to be scared. No, the challenge of life beyond cancer is to learn to live with uncertainty.
For me, it’s just as valid to see cancer as a message from your soul. It’s an invitation to ask yourself more honestly–who am I now? What do I want? What feels right when I do it?
If you like, you can see cancer as a do-over. It’s not the only disaster that can turn into a learning experience, but it’s especially powerful because it happens to so many of us.
J.P.: You write, “I know how it feels to start over after cancer.” Anne, what is it to start over after cancer? What was it for you?
Every sensation is heightened. You become aware of yourself in the world in an entirely different way. A friend who’s Stage IV told me, Life begins at cancer. Strange but true. I would also say cancer wakes you up to the toxicity of our American culture of work. The bond of trust between employer and employee is dead, with the result that stress is constant. We don’t take our vacations; we’re afraid to. The constant need to prove ourselves, the looking over our shoulders. Etc., etc. Everybody’s stressed sometimes, but constant stress is linked to inflammation, and protracted inflammation makes things easier for cancer.
One of the most unpleasant things about starting over after cancer is that every fool you meet is suddenly an oncologist. People with no knowledge of you or medicine or, presumably, courtesy will regale you with how you’d better give up caffeine etc. (or take up caffeine etc.) and how they themselves are on the right side of this important dietary issue and therefore they will never have cancer. Or, more understandably, they survived cancer and now you must do what they did.
This is unkind because at this point in your recovery you are weakened and vulnerable and scared to death anyway. To be whipsawed by contradictory doctrines makes it all just a little worse.
J.P.: You used to be the editor in chief of The Advocate (which is how we met), but I’m unfamiliar with your journalistic path. How did it happen? How did it start? And why did you leave the magazine?
A.S.: I got into journalism as a proofreader. My first gig was with an extremely short-lived publication called “Barbara Cartland’s World if Romance.” From there, I became a proofreader at Esquire. I actually sold a couple of pieces of writing during this time. I’m especially proud of a mischievous Esquire parody we junior-junior-juniors came up with. The senior staff did us the honor of laughing at the piece and publishing it in the magazine.
I moved back to my home state of Louisiana for a few years and became an advertising copywriter in a local market. It was so much fun, I can’t tell you. That’s where I wrote my first TV ads and got interested in film. I won a directing scholarship to NYU Graduate Film School, but I wasn’t one of those filmmakers who were like, I must do this or die. It terms of work, I still gravitated toward magazines.
Eventually, after film school, I wound up in Los Angeles, where I couldn’t make inroads into the film business but was hired as a copy editor at The Advocate. I stayed there 15 years. I was promoted up the arts and entertainment side of the masthead until eventually I became editor in chief. I left in 2008, when the company was bought and the new owners wanted a new EIC.
J.P.: Along those lines—is print over?
J.P.: What’s your mental relationship with death? Terrified? Comfortable? And how has it been impacted by your cancer experiences?
A.S.: This whole time has been about getting to the point where I can look at death. I am not a brave person. That’s the second idea behind Well Again. I realized that I didn’t care at all how many facts I knew about my cancer. I mean, yes, but in a chilly way. A battery of facts was never going to lend me courage when I had to go for a followup. What did help were memories of doing things I loved. Cancer couldn’t take those away.
J.P.: You attended NYU Film School and studied under, among others, Martin Scorsese. So … what was that like? Scorsese as a teacher? What do you remember about him?
Scorsese is very short, maybe five feet one. You notice that one time only. Once he’s talking, he’s six feet five. I loved him. He was much kinder than our professors. He thought of art in a Catholic way, sort of like self-mortification for a glorious cause. That was very romantic to me at the time. Much later, cancer shook my belief in suffering.
J.P.: At some point in your life I assume you came out of the closet. What was that experience for you? How hard was it? How was it received?
A.S.: It was pretty hard actually. It was received variously, often with sympathy—which was better than hostility but which I hated anyway. At the core of almost every reaction was either “you’re immature” or “you’re ill.” Things are better for young people now, thank god, but we still have a long way to go. At least most people know homosexuality is not contagious. Well, Ben Carson doesn’t know.
J.P.: You’re the author of The Guerrilla Guide to Mastering Student Loan Debt. Wife and I talk about this all the time. Does the inevitable hell that is un-erasable debt reason enough for some to simply skip out on college? Can the argument be made that, in certain circumstances, it’s just not worth it?
A.S.: The student loan system is insupportable. It rests on the idea that your education benefits you alone, and you alone should bear the cost. Very convenient for the employers who will profit from your education and the government that will run on your taxes. But not true.
I think we are now at the point where a college education has ceased to be worth it for everyone. I like the European system better. If you’re an excellent student, you’re financially supported in going further. If not, your training moves toward practical skills.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ANNE STOCKWELL:
• One question you would ask Talia Shire were she here right now?: Not Talia Coppola?
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I didn’t think I was about to die, but I was sitting where I could see there was a problem with an engine. We had to turn back. I started to cry, but I didn’t whimper out loud. I’m sure I would have.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Don Lemon, William Shatner, Rambo, Alexandra Daddario, “This is Us,” Atlanta Hawks, KRS-One, your right elbow, toe cheese, hot chocolate on a cold day, Golden Gate Bridge: Golden Gate, “This is Us,” KRS-One, Hawks, Daddario, William Shatner, right elbow, hot chocolate, toe cheese, Don Lemon.
• Five all-time favorite brown-haired singers: Pavarotti, Tom Waits, Frank Sinatra, Mick Jagger, Renee Fleming.
• Will there be an openly gay United States president in the next 50 years?: Yes.
• Would you rather snort 10 gallons of red Gatorade through your right nostril or attend 100-straight hours of Donald Trump rallies?: Bring the Gatorade.
• Three memories from your first-ever date: I wore a ridiculous getup. I drank a Black Russian. I wasn’t supposed to want to go home, but I did, and the guy was mad but he drove me. As I was getting out of the car in front of my house, he called out after me how much money he’d spent on dinner.
• Five reasons one should make Southern California his/her home: In-N-Out Burger, The Del Coronado Hotel, Catalina Island, Point Mugu, Palm Springs.
• Strangest celebrity you ever interviews (and why): Anne Heche. For so many reasons.
• My nose has a chronic drip come September-thru-February. Knowing that, would I still get a decent hug if we meet for coffee?: Try me.