The Daytime Emmy winner discusses his battle in Savio P. Clemente’s new book, ”I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It“
Over Savio P. Clemente’s many years as a certified wellness coach, podcaster, and syndicated columnist, he has talked to hundreds of individuals at all stages in their battle with cancer. A Stage 3 cancer survivor himself, Clemente collected 35 of those interviews in his new book, “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It.”
In an excerpt from his book below — which is available to purchase in hardcover, Kindle, and audiobook editions now, Clemente speaks with voice actor Rob Paulsen about his battle with throat cancer and what got him through it.
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This excerpt has been edited for style and clarity.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Rob Paulsen. You probably grew up with Rob. Your kids are
growing up with Rob. Name not familiar? What about Pinky from “Pinky and the Brain?” Yakko from “Animaniacs”? Mutant Turtles, who happen to be martial arts experts, named Raphael and Donatello (depending on which era you grew up in)? That’s Rob Paulsen, one of Hollywood’s busiest, most talented and most passionate performers who specializes in the art of voice acting, a career that has earned him a Daytime Emmy, three Annie Awards, and a Peabody.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Michigan. I wanted to be a professional hockey player. Thankfully, I learned early on I had neither the talent, temperament, nor dental insurance to be a hockey player. Because I’m a very rational man, I moved to California in 1978, 43 years ago this year, to apply my trade. I was a singer who became an actor. I moved out to L.A. to do that sort of thing and appeared on TV shows like “MacGyver” and “St. Elsewhere.” I happened to be in some features and a bunch of on-camera commercials.
It was about the mid-’80s. I got a call from my agent who said, “Have you ever thought about doing animation?” I said, “Oh my God! Are you kidding me? Every, every kid with a pulse wants to work on cartoons!” I just wanted to work. So I said, “Of course.”
The first thing I noticed when I got to my first recording session, which by the way, was for “The Transformers” and nobody knew it would become what it has; I thought, oh my gosh! I recognize many of these actors from episodic television growing up in the ’70s, and none of them are limited by the way they look. I love that!
I jumped at the chance and I lived the axiom: Luck is when opportunity meets preparation. I had no idea that by picking up everything I owned and driving out to California, it would put me in a position to get lucky because I was prepared. I’ve since had the opportunity to do all these animated character voices just to make my soul happy. I didn’t really think about making a living in this business.
I have done two “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movies, Rafael from when you were a little guy and on another iteration from 2012 to 2016 on Nickelodeon, I was Donatello. If I live to be 100, maybe I can knock out all four turtles. And speaking of Nickelodeon, I finished another show there called “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” in which I played a character called Carl Wheezer who is enjoying some sort of Renaissance. Don’t ask me why. People just like the little fellow.
So that’s what I do and get paid to do.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is one I kind of appropriated and added my own stuff to it.
When I was a young fellow, my grandparents and my aunts and uncles used to have a copy of Reader’s Digest Magazine. At the end of every issue was a segment in which jokes were told. It was called “Laughter’s the Best Medicine” — my ethos. The way I’ve lived my life, both pre and post-cancer is I believe that laughter is the best medicine. You can’t O.D. on it. Whether you’re dealing with typical things that people have: cancer, divorce, being broke, or going through all sorts of financial issues, losing a job, losing a loved one… whatever it is, I have found that laughter is a profoundly powerful bit of medicine, and that’s why I use that particular quote.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out you had cancer?
I absolutely do. As I mentioned, I am a hockey player, and while I’m not good enough to make any money at it, I am good enough to play with a couple of buddies out here in Burbank. There are a couple of nice hockey rinks out of here.
Being a typical “weekend warrior” athlete, a typical guy, unless I can’t feel a limb or I’m bleeding profusely, I go to my doctor once a year for my physical.
One morning about five years ago, I was shaving and noticed a lump on the left side of my neck. I make my living with my voice, and was able to work. I didn’t have any pain or precipitous weight loss. I did a little bit of research on the internet. It could have been throat cancer. It also could have been a low-grade infection, and I chose to believe that.
This was in the middle of the year. About six months after that I was at my physical, maybe January or February of 2016, and the lump was still there. It didn’t feel any larger, but it was significant. You could see it if I pointed it out, so I said to my doctor, “What do you think about this doc?” And within seconds he said, “Not good.” I thought he was messing with me. He said, “No, seriously if this were a low-grade infection, it would be soft. This is like a knot. We don’t want a lump in this part of your body. This is not a good sign.”
It turned out to be Stage 3 Metastatic Squamous Cell Carcinoma. The primary tumor was at the base of my tongue, deep in my throat tissue. This area on my neck was the spot to which the cancer had already spread. After a bunch of punching, they found it. It was not very comfortable, but they did find it. And that is how it was discovered.
One of the most miraculous things — in addition to recovery and surviving — is the fact that there are world-class therapists, oncologists, radiation oncologists, and nutritionists — people who, overnight, take you under their respective professional wings and do everything in their power to give you the best shot. People I didn’t know 20 minutes before that diagnosis are now people I’ve come to know very well for the past five and a half years. I hope they are in my life forever because even though I’m cured, these people have become part of my extended family.
This is only one of the glorious side effects, if I may, of my cancer treatment. It has allowed me to see the silver lining, actually the platinum lining to my treatment story. Now I have connections with world-class physicians to whom I can say, “Please tell me if you have another patient who’s going through the same sort of thing I was because it’s very frightening.”
I’m fine, but now my sense of empathy is so key. When I am either literally or figuratively holding someone’s hand, I am able to say with authority, “Oh man, I get it. I really get it,” that part of the experience is the best part. Obviously, I’m glad to be here, able to work, be with my family, and talk to my new friends. But, to be able to be helpful, to be able to reach out… people like you who are kind enough to give me this incredibly wonderful forum. This has given me the perspective on why we are here and I think that is something; if we’re able to actually help people, great.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that
could happen to you?
Because I was diagnosed at a fairly old age, I was 59, and even if the doctors had said, “Look, we’re going to keep you comfortable, but you’re on your way out,” I had nothing about which to be sad. Obviously, I didn’t want to leave my family, but people get over stuff. They’d have insurance money and all of the typical stuff. But, that’s not what they told me. The doctor said, “Rob, we’re virtually sure we can cure you, but before we do, we almost have to kill you.”
The treatment was brutal, for obvious reasons — through the mouth and the throat. It lit me up pretty good, but it absolutely worked like a charm. I did radiation and chemo concurrently. It was probably about a year from the time I started my treatment until I was close to a 100% or was close to Rob 2.0.
There’s definitely a shift. I’m different. You’re a cancer survivor, and I’m sure you understand that too. It doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just means it’s different. What they also said was, “Look, we know what you do for a living. We’re sure we can cure you, and you’ll be able to speak. Will you be able to do your job at the same level? The straight truth is we don’t know.” That is what frightened me because being able to be funny, creative — all the things that pay for everything in my life, comes from my voice and my ability to be creative, and that is what really scared me.
I wasn’t thinking, oh my God, I’ll be suicidal, but humor and music and joy… I mean, I’m a blue- collar worker in The Dream Factory. My job is the happy business. If I couldn’t do my job, I would figure out a way to live my life, but I think that would be really tough. So for me, that was the most difficult aspect of my diagnosis — without question.
How did you react in the short term?
My first reaction… I remember clearly, and I’ll never forget it. I don’t think any of us forget the day that we get that phone call. My ear, nose, and throat doctor called. This was after all of the biopsy stuff. He said, “How are you feeling?” I said, “Well, I’m not sure. How am I?”
He said it was cancer as we suspected. I didn’t freak out, nor did my wife, nor did my son. We were very philosophical about it. What occurred to me right away was that I live in the most populated county — in L.A. County — and at that very moment, God forbid a young mother was being diagnosed with ovarian cancer just as she and her husband were trying to get pregnant; or a young father was being diagnosed with lung cancer just six months after the birth of his first child. That was not my circumstance.
My circumstance was we just got dealt a bad hand. Everyone does. No one gets out of here
without a couple of dings, whether it’s cancer, divorce, car accident, you name it. None of us do. I don’t care how much money you make. I don’t care how famous you are. No one gets out of here without a couple of curveballs.
Also, because of this wonderful work I’ve been able to do, my characters Yakko, Raphael, Donatello, Pinky have been asked more times than I can count to speak to kids in the hospital. Want to have something to prioritize and contextualize in what one considers a struggle? Talk to a young mom and dad whose child wants to hear from their favorite Ninja Turtle. Then you talk to the parents after you’ve had a wonderful chat with that sweet little boy or little girl, and you find out that that young man or woman is not going to make it out of that hospital until they leave in a body bag.
That happened to me a lot. I was the beneficiary of incredibly brave children and parents who taught me what real “turtle power” was — what real love, support, and profiles of courage were about. And, because I had that gift from all these people and their children, my reaction was not, “OH NOO!” My reaction was: “Oh well. Now it’s my turn. Let’s see what you’re made of, hotshot.”
I’m so grateful because not everyone obviously has the benefit of seeing people in the most difficult, impossibly horrible circumstances in their lives with their children. That’s how I handled it. Not only am I cured, I am doing my job and was just called in to do a new song for “Animaniacs,” so apparently I am just fine.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope
physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
My coping mechanism, as I said earlier, and I’m not trying to be coy is humor. I cultivated a keen sense of humor, even Gallows humor — if I’m on hold on the phone for too long, for example. I remember my treatment was really difficult and I’d be waiting to speak to my doctor. I was put on hold and said, “Jesus Christ! A guy could die from throat cancer waiting for you to pick up, you idiot!”
When I would mess around, they would all say, “Don’t lose your sense of humor.” Not everybody has that, and that’s OK. Everybody has to deal with it in their own way, but if you’re able to laugh while this is going on, make yourself and others laugh, and you know what it feels like to make someone else happy, that feeling is mine — to have that superpower. I fell back on that.
Some of the side effects I’ve had to deal with as Rob 2.0 is that I can’t really taste food the way I did for the first 60 years of my life. That’s been kind of disconcerting. Now food for me is just a way to keep me alive. I don’t really enjoy it, but that doesn’t bother me. It kind of got my goat a little bit when I was really struggling. I’d see a commercial for Jersey Mike’s Subs or for a steak and thought, “Oh my God. I can’t wait till I can eat again.”
I lost 50 pounds. I had always been extremely athletic, so I didn’t have that much weight I should lose. I started at 178 lbs. and got down to 128 lbs. I had a period of about a month and a half where I just couldn’t eat at all. My mean weight now is between 139 lbs. and 143 lbs. I ate today before you were kind enough to have me on. I had a little bit of avocado and rice sushi, maybe 12 pieces, and I’m full. There was a time before my cancer when I might have had three of those and a milkshake, and I maybe would’ve gotten full, but I’d be ready to eat dinner in four or five hours. If I don’t eat dinner tonight, I won’t miss it. I’ve had to learn how to rethink food and what sort of place it plays in my life, if that makes any sense.
I also have to be extra careful because I now have an oncological dentist. All of the radiation to my lower jaw has exposed me to the increased risk of some dental issues if I’m not really careful. I have to use special prescription toothpaste. But all of it is utterly superseded by the joy in my ability to get back to work and still have my sense of humor intact. By and large, while I’ve had some serious side effects, none of them are life-changing to the extent they make my life unhappy.
Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and
heal? Can you share a story about that?
I think if I had to pick one, it would probably be a young friend of mine who’s no longer living. His name was Chad Gazzola. I met Chad and his family probably 30 years ago. I was playing hockey in Calgary in a charity game to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Southern Alberta. Chad was the poster boy. He happened to be the same age as my son. Chad had two sisters; one also had Muscular Dystrophy, which is a genetic predisposition.
Honestly, talk about getting thrown a curveball. Can you imagine having not one, but two
children with Muscular Dystrophy and all of the challenges that entails? And, to my knowledge in those days, children were lucky to make it to age 13, just when you get to know them. I got to know Chad and his family intimately. They really embraced me, and Chad was a Ninja Turtle until the end.
Chad’s story and seeing how he dealt with what his mom and dad had to put him through every day just to keep his lungs clear so he could breathe… it was brutal for little Chad and his sister, Mandy, the other one with Muscular Dystrophy, but never once did I hear Chad cry. I saw his mother cry a lot, but that young man, just by his example of bravery and courage changed my life so much so that at age 59, when I was diagnosed (Chad had been gone for 10 years), I thought of him immediately and more than a dozen times when I was in my Vicodin-induced stupor. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this much pain in my life — ever. They kept telling me it’s going to work, but you sure could’ve fooled me. I thought immediately of Chad and how tough it must’ve been to be born in a wheelchair and live your whole life like that with your mom having to beat the daylights out of your back to get your chest to clear up. I thought, “Maybe you better suck it up.”
In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?
Great question. I think what cancer taught me and continues to do is give me the opportunity to be a better man. My sense of empathy now is so very strong. And while I don’t have empathy for every type of cancer or every type of physical difficulty, I have a lot more than before my cancer.
I was always sympathetic. As I said, I had these incredible teachers and these sweet kids, with different kinds of cancer or Muscular Dystrophy. Most of them didn’t make it. Cancer reminds me that every single day we have a new opportunity to be better, to be more than empathic, to be more thoughtful, to be literally more human and that is not hyperbole. When you’re lucky enough to have a brush with cancer that I did, where it was very clear that it was going to be uncomfortable, but by God I was going to survive, I thought, “Dude, this is an incredible opportunity. You’re going to be OK but just think about all the good you’re going to be able to do and for yourself.”
Not only because of nice folks like you, Savio, will I be able to reach people through this lovely chat, but I get more out of it. When I am able to speak to someone with authority about their cancer struggle, and then I hear from them, or maybe I hear through their doctor, wow that young man or that young woman was having a real hard time, and it turns out he or she really loved one of your characters. You did the characters for her and talked about your particular treatment. You were very empathic with the difficulty of her treatment, and she is just glowing and can’t stop smiling. The biggest beneficiary of that is me, and that’s the damn truth.
Every day I think: “You’re already a nice guy. Let’s work on being a better one.” That’s what cancer taught me.
How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?
I think my cancer — specifically because I had throat cancer — is a great help. Your kindness is no small thing. We never know when someone’s going to be reading this lovely chat. With two of the shows I did, “Animaniacs” and “Pinky and the Brain,” both had a reboot on Hulu with Mr. Spielberg to a much larger audience, 25 years later. That alone is pretty cool, but as a result of this lovely conversation, we never know when someone is going to read it. Maybe they have a loved one who is going through the same type of cancer that I had or maybe a lung cancer or tongue cancer, something that might affect their speech or ability to speak.
But specifically, because I had throat cancer and I’m able to do my job at the highest level in Hollywood post-cancer, someone may read this chat and say, “Hey Uncle Bill, I know you’re dealing with this really horrible treatment, but remember how you turned me on to ‘Pinky and the Brain’ when I was in high school and you were in college? Well, it’s back on Hulu now and the guy that does Pinky had precisely the kind of cancer that you have. I know you’re having real trouble with treatment right now. You’ve got to read this guy’s chat with Savio and then, let’s go watch him on Hulu. That’s what he sounds like after the treatment.”
That’s how my cancer experience, and precisely because it affected my work, gives me an
opportunity to at least bring a little bit of comfort to people. So it is I who is very grateful to you for giving me the opportunity.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer
that you would like to dispel?
I think probably the biggest was I had to let my friends know that I was fine talking about it. I had to tell them, “Look, if you guys have any questions, I am happy to answer them.” They didn’t ignore me, but they didn’t know what to say, and I don’t think that’s unusual. It wasn’t out of anything but ignorance. Mind you, it wasn’t like anybody got pissed off. My colleague was struggling with a real health issue, and I just didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to upset her.
I can tell you folks out there who love someone with cancer — a friend, maybe a relative, someone whom you care about greatly — call them up, ask them how they’re doing. At least in my circumstance, I never had a problem with hearing from anyone. It made me feel great when friends of mine went out of their way to call and just say, “Hey man, I can’t imagine how tough this is, or even if it is tough. I just want you to know I’m thinking about you. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?”
Put the onus on a cancer survivor. Let them say, “Let’s talk about sports. Let’s talk about something that isn’t cancer.” That way you’re honoring your desire to chat with them, but you’re also not leaving it up to them to say, “Well, I don’t know if I want to talk about my cancer.”
So the biggest myth I can dispel from my own experience was that folks who are friends or loved ones of people struggling with a serious health issue, call them up. Take the time to call them. Don’t be afraid of chatting with them. They’ll let you know if they’re not strong enough. Just go and give it a shot.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
That’s very kind of you to say that. I think like most adults, I like to give to kids. In terms of influence, I’m a spokesperson for an organization called Boo2Bullying. The whole idea is to get those being bullied and the players or the prospective players while they’re young.
I’m involved with a number of different children’s foundations because whether it’s learning how to deal with problems, learning that violence is never the answer, or learning that bullying of course is never acceptable, I want to be an influence to kids because if we can find a way to get through to children about those important aspects, they will become better humans.
I reckon the best thing to do is try to get the kids while they’re young. When I get a chance to have very deep discussions, I never know when parents or kids who watched my shows 20-odd or 30-odd years ago are now going to say, “I would really like to hear what that guy has to say. I’m going to turn him on to my kids. We’re going to watch ‘Animaniacs’ together, and I think I’ll read this discussion he and Savio had for my 20-year-old, or my 25-year-old.” If I’m able to essentially preach to the choir of children, I am in.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
I had a private lunch with Steven Spielberg. What a great guy! I would love to have a private meeting or private lunch with Warren Buffet. I say that, not because it would be nice to be a billionaire. That’s pretty much never going to happen, but Mr. Buffett is a wellspring of logical, thoughtful, articulate information that is applicable across any and all human spectrums.
It’s not about money. It’s not about how to make your next billion dollars in the stock market. It’s sage advice. I think they call him the “Oracle of Omaha.” When I read what he talks about, it’s just common sense, but also out of kindness. I really don’t know that there’s anything more important in the human experience than human kindness. It is the basis of everything good in the world. I believe that human kindness is the best. It is literally what separates us from animals. And, I love my animals. I would seriously give up my life for my dog. I know there are a lot of people who would not.
Find the ability to actively seek out kindness and find ways to incorporate that in your daily life. As I mentioned in your last question: I believe that I’m a nice guy. I want to be a better one. To be able to speak to someone who’s in their 90s, who can give me chapter and verse about how one comes from nothing, creates billions of dollars’ worth of wealth for himself, his family, and for the people he hires and does it all with kindness, thoughtfulness, utter gratitude and appreciation for the finest country in the world, I can get an awful lot from Mr. Buffet. I’m already a fan, so that’s why he would be my choice.