There's no telling how many cancer patients have been inspired to carry on by Good Morning America movie critic Joel Siegel's epic, public battles with the disease. Nonetheless, when he recently was given the Gilda Radner Courage Award, "I said right up front in my little [acceptance] speech, 'I don't think I did anything courageous. I was diagnosed with cancer, and I did what the doctors told me'," the 60-year-old explains to TV Guide Online. "It's like if you're being held hostage and a guy puts a gun to your head and says, 'If you move, I'll shoot,' and you don't move, you're not being courageous." We beg to differ, so we asked the genial cineast to share his story.
TV Guide Online: You had both colon and lung cancer — that's quite a one-two punch. What kept you in the fight?
Joel Siegel: It's hard to talk about this stuff and not sound like a Hallmark card. There was a whole series of coincidences. I was diagnosed with cancer two weeks to the day after my wife and I found out we were pregnant. The day we took [our son] Dylan home from the hospital was my last day of chemotherapy. I wouldn't say that having Dylan gave me the strength to go on, [though]. Closer to the truth is that it gave me the mind set that I had to go on. I had to see what was going to happen. I was 55 [and a first-time father]. I wasn't going to let anybody or anything take that away from me.
TVGO: How's your health now?
Siegel: It seems to be fine. It's six years before you're declared "cured." And what that means is that there are very few instances of the disease recurring after six years. It's been two-and-a-half years since my last surgery, so I still have a couple of years to go. And the [emotional] scars never go away. I don't consider myself cured, I consider myself a recovering cancer patient. You're always scared it's going to come back. It's like any kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome, like guys coming back from the war. You wake up in the middle of the night sweating, thinking, "Oh, [bleep], it might happen again!"
TVGO: Is there anything that you've taken away from your experience that might be of some help to others?
Siegel: Colon cancer is the second leading cancer killer in the country, second only to lung cancer. And there's no reason for anyone to die of colon cancer, because if it's found early enough, there's a virtual 100 percent cure rate. It's found through a colonoscopy, and if I'd had [the procedure] six months or a year earlier, instead of a doctor coming in and saying, "I'm afraid we have bad news," he would have said, "We saw a couple of polyps and we snipped them out. See you next year!" So I would say to talk to your physician and check your family on both sides… see if there's any history of this. And have a colonoscopy when you're 50. It's very uncomfortable, but it's a lot more comfortable than the other stuff!
TVGO: While you were facing your own mortality, you wrote your son a book, Lessons for Dylan (out in paperback on April 27). Are there any new lessons you've learned that you wish you had stuck in there for him?
Siegel: No. Actually, it's the other way around. There are things Dylan has taught me… just [through] the innocence of being a child and the way he looks at the world. To him, everything is new and exciting. Everybody is different, but nobody is different in a bad way. It just makes everything worthwhile.
TVGO: Oh. So he already has his book deal in place!
Siegel: (Laughs) I don't know. He knew I was writing a book when he was 3 and 4 years old, but I didn't know if he knew what [writing a book] meant. He knew there were a lot of pages all over. Then, when I finally got a copy of the bound galley, that looked like a book. He could understand what it was. And the cover is his picture and my picture, and when he saw it, he looked up at me and said, "Who else's daddy ever wroted him a book?" I told my editor they could have kept their advance if I'd known he was going to say that!
TVGO: Careful there — you're getting a little Hallmark-y. Were there any films that you watched while you were undergoing treatment to raise your spirits?
Siegel: When I got out of surgery the third time, I had to watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, because of the scene where they jump off the canyon into the river and Sundance can't swim, and Butch says, "That's okay, the fall will probably kill ya anyway." I figured if he could make it, then I could make it. Other than that, I would watch comedies.
TVGO: How's Dylan's taste in movies?
Siegel: Well, he's a 6-year-old kid, so he likes everything. (Sheepishly) He made me go see Scooby-Doo 2. And I saw Scooby-Doo 1 with him, and he loved it. But his favorite movie is School of Rock, so that's a good sign.