Standing up in the face of cancer
Comedian with terminal illness aims to inspire with film screening
Stand-up comedian and cancer patient Steve Mazan will be making an appearance at El Camino Hospital on Tuesday, Oct. 4, to tell a few jokes, share his experiences living with his terminal diagnosis and screen his inspirational biographical film.
The screening is sponsored by the Healthy Young Attitude, a cancer support group run by the Peter Morey Foundation, which was established in the memory of Peter Morey, who grew up in Mountain View and died of melanoma less than a week before his 24th birthday.
Ann Morey, Peter's mother and the founder of Healthy Young Attitude, expects that Mazan and his film will resonate with her group of men and women in their 20s and 30s who have been diagnosed with cancer.
Back in 2005, Mazan was diagnosed with liver and intestinal cancer at the age of 34. While surgery was largely successful removing the growths from his intestines, doctors told him the tumors on his liver were inoperable and that he could have as little as five years left to live.
Six years later, Mazan lives in Southern California with his wife, is still touring the country, and is making a comfortable living as a stand-up comedian. "I feel great," he says. "I feel probably as good as I have since I got the diagnosis."
The comedian's positive outlook may be related to his achievements since 2005. Over the past six years Mazan has kept his nose to the grindstone, touring steadily and even achieving a lifelong goal — performing on the Late Show with David Letterman.
The pursuit and ultimate accomplishment of his dream are covered in Mazan's film, "Dying to do Letterman." In the feature-length documentary, Mazan brings viewers into his day-to-day life as a working comedian and cancer patient, following him as he books shows, endures regular body scans and tests, and continues chasing his dream, even after he receives a rejection letter from the Letterman producers.
"The movie really ends up being about dreams rather than cancer," Mazan says of his documentary. "Everybody can relate to dreams they've had or dreams they've put on hold."
Mazan says he wants those who come to the free screening — which runs from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. and is open to the public — to leave with a new sense of purpose, regardless of their health.
That is precisely what Mazan's cancer diagnosis helped him do. "It made me prioritize," he says. "Letterman was the thing I wanted to make happen."
Morey says that her son shared this view. "You have to live your life the way you want to live your life," Morey says, noting that most of the cancer patients who attend her Healthy Young Attitude meetings say that their priorities were all put into perspective when they were diagnosed with cancer. "You take every day as it comes and you do your best."
"They say it does help people live longer," she said of those cancer patients who remain positive and live their lives to the fullest while they can. "It certainly helps with their outlook on life."
The film begins with a brief history of Mazan's childhood, adolescence and early adult years, wherein the comedian (and film's narrator) explains that he has dreamt of performing on Letterman's program since he was in middle school. However, for a number of reasons, Mazan didn't even begin performing stand up until he moved out to San Francisco at the age of 29 and started playing open mic nights.
Over the course of the next five years, Mazan was able to quit his day job and support himself as a comic. Then came the diagnosis. Money issues, doubts and trying times follow. But, nonetheless, the movie never takes on a tone of despair. Through it all, Mazan keeps working toward his dream — if for no other reason than he can't afford to stop.
"I still have to live," Mazan says, explaining that he really had to keep going in order to continue paying his bills. "I have to make a living. I have to love my wife. I have to call my mom and check in with her."
Mazan does all of these things throughout the film, and he continues to send in his best material to the Letterman producers. Until finally, on Aug. 31, 2009, a healthy looking Mazan recorded a short bit in front of a live studio audience at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York. The performance was aired on Sept. 4.
"Life is easy," Mazan says. "Living is hard."
Most people assume that they will live into their 70s or 80s, Mazan says — not considering death until they reach 60. This outlook often results in procrastination. Instead of pursuing a goal, people reason that they will eventually get to the goal, "someday," he says.
"You need to realize that 'someday' is not on the calendar," Mazan says. "There is a chance you may not be around for 'someday,' so you should give your goals a real date."
The screening, which can seat up to 120, will be held on the lower level of El Camino Hospital, Morey says. Signs posted at the main hospital entrance will direct visitors to the event.