For OC Weekly Photojournalist Andrew Youssef, Life Was Music. Then Came Cancer

For <i>OC Weekly</i> Photojournalist Andrew Youssef, Life Was Music. Then Came Cancer
Lindsey Best

Sneakers squeaking on white tiles, Andrew Youssef roams Long Beach Memorial Hospital. It's 5:30 p.m., and for the bespectacled, well-mannered pharmacist, that means quitting time. He isn't heading home to a sloshy TV dinner, a plush couch and HBO. Instead, he can't wait to ditch his scrubs and pursue his true calling—his night job.

Youssef dips into the locker room and rips off his turquoise jump suit. As a freelance concert photographer over the past seven years, he has shot everyone from Black Sabbath to Cold War Kids. The rush to change and get back into the action has hardly lost its thrill. Switching into his usual all-black uniform of jeans, a T-shirt and a windbreaker, he fetches his trusty Nikon D4 and his blue bag of pills and is off into the neon night.

Nearly three years ago, Youssef was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. Since then, he has held fast in a heroic battle against the illness. His survival rate past five years was less than 6 percent. Today, as the cancer in his body advances, the 38-year-old finds himself nearing the end of his fight; recently, doctors gave him weeks to months to live.

Page Hamilton with Youssef
Lindsey Best
Page Hamilton with Youssef
The Rolling Stones
Andrew Youssef
The Rolling Stones

During his epic struggle with the disease, on a good night, if everything went right, Youssef would drive out of the hospital with time to spare, a subtle grin on his face in the waning moments of purple-stained sunlight. Heavy-metal guitars would rattle his car windows. Watching his transformation from hospital pharmacist to a concert photographer, most people would never know they'd witnessed something akin to Clark Kent becoming Superman.

"I wonder how I did it sometimes," Youssef says. "There were times when I'd be up until 3 a.m., and my alarm would ring for me to work at the hospital a few hours later at 6:15 a.m. There's a certain adrenalin you get from being able to do that."

Youssef has the art of pre-show prep down to a science. Tips such as clearing his memory cards after every gig and scouting a band's stage lighting are coiled up with nagging reminders to take Lomotil and Imodium to prevent diarrhea, nausea or other stomach problems in the middle of a shoot. He never ate right before a gig. Impeccable hydration was a must.

As he'd zoom down the freeway, he would run through his meticulous mental notes: Has he shot this band before? What's the route to the venue's nearest bathroom should he need to stumble in and throw up? Where should he post up in the photo pit to get a good shot without getting trampled? Exactly how long should he wait for the woozy side effects of his chemo to kick in before ducking out to his car?

Looking back on the stress Youssef has endured for his craft, he recalls the concern of friends who worried he wasn't getting enough rest. "I'll sleep when I'm dead," he remembers thinking. "If I have the energy to do something, I'm gonna do it. Because there's gonna come a time when I won't have it."

*    *    *

From the day of his devastating diagnosis, Youssef has had every opportunity to wallow, shut out the world and let his illness quietly choke whatever spirit he had left. Luckily, he didn't let that happen. Instead, he vigorously embraced his passion as a concert photographer. Powered by relentless, defiant—some would say bat-shit crazy—ambition, he crisscrossed Southern California, the country, even the world to capture more than 330 shows since the arrival of the Big C. His day job as a pharmacist in a hospital affords him the professional knowledge of how bad his health situation could get should he push himself too hard.

Despite that, his desire to fulfill his concert and photography bucket list has taken his experience as a fan and his relationships with some of his favorite artists to startling heights. He has befriended rock stars, received beyond royal treatment at shows, even dined with elusive Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor (who now follows him on Twitter).

Helmet's Page Hamilton, a revered renaissance man and alt-metal figure since the '90s, used to see Youssef at just about every show the band would play in LA, and in 2007, they struck up a friendship. During the Christmas season after he was diagnosed, Hamilton showed up one day at Youssef's home for a jam session. The squealing white noise of Hamilton's guitar echoed alongside Youssef's deft guitar chugging. "I just felt in my heart at that moment that he was gonna get through it," Hamilton says. "It's just devastating."

Youssef's column for OC Weekly's Heard Mentality blog, Last Shot, recounts his experiences with cancer in harrowing and heartbreaking detail, a stark tribute to his awe-inspiring courage.

It has given his last days one hell of a soundtrack.

*    *    *

For the past nine months, Youssef has spent most Wednesday evenings on a laptop with the daunting task of condensing the toughest years of his life into 450-word chunks for all to see. From the living room of his family's middle-class, one-story home, he types methodically, his computer on his knees, skinny limbs sunken into a brown, marshmallowy recliner. The house is tucked inside a Downey cul-de-sac; a lone palm tree on the lawn guards the door, a large front window and its faded drapes.

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14 comments
iloveconcerts
iloveconcerts

Super cool blog (Amateur Chemist). What a joy to see those amazing concert photos!

Also, great article Mr. Jackson. Love the photo art cover Ms. Best. Thank You for sharing all of this.


lifelieswaiting
lifelieswaiting

Healthy people who are pissing their lives away should take note. THIS is how you live your life. Every moment is precious. You rock, Youssef.

CRIMECONCERNS
CRIMECONCERNS

Our prayers and thoughts are with you and your family.... thank you for sharing this difficult time with others.  As my sister is currently battling the same Stage IV cancer, the difficulties are over whelming and we can only hope that a cure for this horrific disease is not far off.  God bless you. 

CAHinSoCal
CAHinSoCal

A wonderful tribute to an extraordinary man.  I do not know Andrew personally but I have gotten to know him the next best way...through his mom.  Andrew, as your  journey on this earth comes to a close, please know that you will end up with the best seat in the house for every single concert of your choosing as well as all the LA Kings games.  Peace and comfort to you and your family.

merlinlacy
merlinlacy

Thankyou Youseff for sharing your life.   I do not know any family that has not suffered loss from this killer.  My past spouse, mother, in laws and more to come I am sure .

Most have handled this killer in very helpful ways trying to give to others all that they are able to give, just as you are doing.  So very proud of you for joining this group .  Trust we shall find a cure soon.   Trust that I could learn to be so positive and helpful should I ever have to deal with this killer.  Thankyou for your example and for being a role model .... THANK YOU AND MAY OUR HEAVENLY FATHER CONTINUE TO BLESS YOUR LIFE.

humbuckinhoney
humbuckinhoney

I don't know you, Youssef.  But you rock.  And you are beautiful and passionate.  Thank you for being utterly and entirely and wonderfully you. 

heatherreger
heatherreger

Really nice work Nate! A powerful tribute.

Stephanie Roske
Stephanie Roske

Very nice article of "one of us". Andrew could be any one of us and I am so honored that he shares his journey. Sending love and prayers.

terminator4007
terminator4007

Such a clear article. I was able to picture every part since I live a similar life style as youssef. I even wonder if I had bumped into him at a few concerts waiting in the pits. But I look up to people like him that continue to persevere to do more until ones last dying breathe gives out. Stories like these encourage us to do more, and be more because we really never know when we will go.
~~~R.I.P. Kimberly Illobre~~~

tapthedancer
tapthedancer

Seen the pictures,they are great pictures!!

Reading the story, I realize the  man is great. What a shame to have to loose you so early... Andrew,you left a beautiful mark on this world, for ever to be seen, never to be forgotten by anyone....

René Bruce
René Bruce

Like I said last week, have him go check Kanzius Cancer Research Foundation they are moving to clinical trials.. Google John Kanzius !!! He can be cured !!!

 
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