Cancer taboos tackled in new musical

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A Chichester academic is using his own experiences to tackle the taboos surrounding cancer in a new musical.

The harsh realities of cancer and often-overlooked experiences of invasive treatment have plagued Brian Lobel since he himself was diagnosed with the illness on his 20th birthday. Now, he is attempting to change the overwhelming perception of the disease with his new show A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer.

Brian said: “Behind the pink ribbons and poster campaigns the harsh reality of cancer is laid bare: the waiting rooms and chemo suites, the changed bodies, the family pressures and financial worries.”

The truth behind the fears, disappointments and experiences is now the narrative of the new production at the National Theatre in London.

“But this is unlike any other show on the UK circuit. The all-singing, all-dancing musical is a self-confessed and rip-roaring - albeit heartbreaking - celebration of ordinary life and death that scratches at the battle metaphors of cancer to reveal what really lies beneath.

“Despite the overabundance of charities, research campaigns, ribbons, and bracelets, so little is known about what it actually means to have cancer,” says Brian, co-writer of A Pacifist’s Guide and a senior lecturer of performing arts at the University of Chichester. “The show is about provoking social change by demystifying the experience of the word cancer, the reality of the illness, and how we can talk openly about it with friends and family.”

Dr Lobel is himself a survivor of cancer who has used his personal experiences to challenge the illness. In the 15 years since his stage-three metastatic testicular cancer diagnosis he has become a critical voice of patient care.

“I was one month past my twentieth birthday and I had cancer,” he says. “Exposed to clinical examination I understood what it felt like to be objectified, judged, based on my appearance, and to have expectations placed on me based on my diagnosis.”

The intrusive experiences of being a patient prodded and poked by doctors became the foundation of a career built on pioneering theatre that is fascinated with how cancer, and the fragility created by a diagnosis, is received by friends, family, and a society as a whole. “People are deeply uncomfortable to talk about illness and particularly cancer,” adds Dr Lobel.

“It remains under-examined but publically over-discussed, when compared with other serious illnesses, yet we as a society are terrible at addressing it. One in three of us will get cancer in our lifetime.”

The invasive therapy experienced at a hospital which, at the time, was treating former cycling champion Lance Armstrong during his own cancer battle inspired Dr Lobel’s book and subsequent performance BALL & Other Funny Stories About Cancer. This, about the misconception that survivors are often bigger, stronger, and live more fulfilled lives after treatment, later developed into a novel and successive musical A Pacifist’s Guide.

Brian landed a two-year public engagement Fellowship with the Wellcome Trust to develop his ideas. “Cancer theatre mostly examines diagnosis, or hair loss, or therapy as plot points which create a transformative narrative,” adds Dr Lobel, “but A Pacifist’s Guide explores these areas in depth to understand the experiences of the patients themselves.”

The book and musical has been created by director and performance artist Bryony Kimmings whose work rivals Brian’s with its focus on outlandish social experiments - including retracing an STI to its source and spending a week intoxicated in a controlled environment - and includes composer Tom Parkinson.

A Pacifist’s Guide has been co-produced by touring company Complicite: “It was in 2013 that Judith Dimant first approached Bryony to start a collaboration after watching one of her shows. Between that moment and the day they met, just three weeks later, Judith was diagnosed with breast cancer. Just like that. Out of nowhere. And so they began a very different conversation.

“In my experience, when we visit someone with cancer, we see them for an hour and then leave - A Pacifist’s Guide is about the other 23 hours of their day,” Brian adds. “Each character is taken from real interviewees whose cancer experiences have been disregarded by stories about ‘inspirational’ celebrity survivors, genetic testing, and the denial of death.”

The show has, since its debut at the National Theatre, been applauded by audiences and critics. The University of Chichester senior lecturer himself hopes it will change the current conversation of cancer – and its complicated realities – to one which openly accepts talk of fragility and living with a diagnosis.

“A musical will not solve cancer and the reality of living with the disease but, for those facing the illness, it can be good to talk openly and in a different environment,” he adds. “It is challenging for the audience but, I hope, it is an opportunity for those with experience of cancer or series illnesses to feel their story is told in its truth and entirety - one far away from that inspirational Hollywood story which always seemed so false.”

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer will run at London’s National Theatre until November 29. To find out more about the musical visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or, alternatively, for more about Dr Lobel and his work go to www.chi.ac.uk/staff/dr-brian-lobel.

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