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A Day in the Life of Richard Cohen: Community TV

  • Richard Cohen:

    I'm sort of the poster boy for chronic illness, having had two: MS and then colon cancer. You know, I was 25 years old when my life ran off the tracks. The doctor just sort of called me up and very routinely told me I had MS, that there was nothing he could do.

    I felt very strongly that I had to keep my diagnosis a secret. I made a decision at that point that I was never going to tell anybody again, at least professionally. Imagine starting a job with Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, and in a news organization that stood for truth and openness, and you're sitting on a lie. You know? And you got there by not telling the truth about yourself. And it was a very lonely time.

    It was about a year before I had got up the nerve to tell them because I figured they were going to find out sooner or later. And they were shocked. And in later years, Cronkite's executive producer said to me, "You did the right thing. If you had told me the truth, I wouldn't have hired you."

    Sometimes, I think the real crisis with illness is less what's going on in your body and more the way the world sees you.

    Illness can challenge your view of yourself, your belief in yourself, really your whole faith system in who you are. People with chronic illnesses are always proving to other people that they can still do it. But what they're really doing is proving to themselves that they can still do it.

    I wrote Blindsided after I had cancer. What happened when it was published was — because nothing like it had been written before — it became a best-seller. People showed up at events that we did at libraries and schools and public places, and people showed up in wheelchairs and on canes and on crutches, and they all came with stories and I realized the obvious: that there were a zillion stories out there.

    The second time I had colon cancer was really the low point in my life. I had worked so hard, really for my whole adult life, to stay up and positive and optimistic. And this was crushing. And I sort of took it out on the family. And I was very dark. I was very difficult to deal with. And Meredith came up to me and said, "You've got to stop this, you know? You've gotta stop treating your family this way. You know, they're the ones who love you."

    It's almost as if we're blaming ourselves for our illness. You know, it's almost as if it's deserved; that I did something in my life that brought this on.

    You can have a life. But you've got to want it badly enough to fight for it, and fighting for it is fighting an illness, is fighting other people sometimes, but mostly, it's fighting yourself. And not allowing yourself to be a victim, to back away, to pull inward. I think too often people think that they're disqualified by a disease, and they're not.

    People say to me, you know, "Boy, bet you wish you could trade in all the stuff in the cancer or the MS." And I honestly can say, and have said, I wouldn't trade in the MS. I'll trade in the cancer stuff, but I wouldn't trade in the MS.

    It's who I am, it's part of my identity. And it really is my mission. And it means so much to me to work with other people and to do the writing that I've done.

    I continue to say, you know, that I have a great life. And I have no regrets.

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