Andrew Youssef will be remembered for a lot of things, not least of which was his ability to make a reporter's job exponentially easier by being an astute, thoughtful human being, even under the most difficult circumstances. Throughout his entire career, Youssef was used to being the one asking questions, listening, gabbing valuable information and relaying it to his readers. But when he decided to start his Last Shot column, which would eventually lead to a cover story on his life, suddenly he was the one having the reporter's lens turned on him. We had the pleasure of doing an in depth interview with Youssef in which, among other things, he talked about how his column and how thankful he was for the impact it had on both himself and those who followed it. Here now are some lasting thoughts from the man, the myth, the legend–in his own words.
OC Weekly (Nate Jackson): What was it like writing that first column? What was going through your mind?
Andrew Youssef: It was like “Do I jump into this pool and tell everybody and let the world know?” It was obviously very scary. Obviously a few people had known about my cancer diagnosis, but even when I was announcing that I was on a medical hiatus…ya know it's not really cool to go “Oh, I have colon cancer” versus lung cancer or whatever kind of cancer. There's still a stigma there unfortunately and I'd been through so much at that point. And then on the news you'd keep seeing this person dying of colon cancer or this person being diagnosed with colon cancer, it was difficult to keep seeing that, maybe now is a time to step up and get this dialogue out in the open, so I sat down and wrote the column. It was difficult to write but once it was out there, it was out there. And the feedback from people who responded to the column was incredible. I literally remembered that day it was published I was literally on my laptop all day responding to people via Twitter, Facebook, email and everyone who shared it…literally from like 9 a.m. to at least 7-8 p.m., it was like “Ok maybe I did do the right thing to bring it out to the public.”
Reading your column, you detail the ups and downs of fighting cancer. What was it like bearing all of that?
Yeah, there was that column I wrote about the roller coaster of cancer. I used to keep an active chart on my iPad, like a spread sheet of all my lab values and my tumor levels and there was a time, I'd say a year and a half out where I actually had normal tumor levels. I was I guess you could say, in remission, for a couple weeks. But when they did the CT and PET scan, it showed that I had disease and that it hadn't retracted. It was staying stable, it wasn't really growing, but it wasn't reflecting what my tumor levels had indicated. At that point I was thinking, “That was easy, boom I just knock it down to normal, just stay on chemo, that's not a big deal.” But cancer is a nasty terrorist and it basically changed the way it attacked and just continued spread and found a way to beat that regiment of medications I was on. It is a roller coaster you keep going through but after a while you try to keep the highs not so high and the lows not so low to try to balance yourself out because there's nothing really certain about the whole process of cancer.
Journalism is a very small community and a lot of people. What kind of reaction did you tend to get from colleagues as you kept seeing them at shows?
It's great that the community has been so supportive. A lot of people when I first came back, a lot of people were surprised and happy to see me and it was great to feel so welcomed back. Even now at the end of my show going, people are always really glad to see me and wanted to know how I was doing. I'm fortunate that the column gave me the format to update people, so I didn't have to recite the same story 50 thousand times which is one of the very difficult things for cancer patients. And I'm grateful that I have that platform to tell people and spread that word. And the feedback I would get would always be great. I remember some of my friends would be on Twitter “Oh, it was great seeing Andrew in the photo pit tonight” or getting that support form that community was always great. Even support from the publicists and the venues, because they understand that we work a tireless job. We're up long hours and work late at night, slaving away writing reviews and taking pictures. And we do it because we love it and the community is a great community, even between rival publications, we're all battling the same war and we form a brotherhood and sisterhood of sorts that gives that unique bond.
You get the question "how are you doing” so often and in conversation there's ways to update people by sugar coating things. You don't do that with the column–it can be heart breaking and graphic and real. It could be considered upsetting to people, and your write about things that are often embarrassing, did you have reservations about writing that way when you started?
I definitely did, and I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I decided if I was going to sign up to do this thing, I was gonna do it right. I wasn't gonna sugar coat it or cheapen it. I tried to balance out the column to show some of my good days and some of my bad days. I tried not to do four depressing columns in a row and three amazing columns in a row. I really tried to balance it out to show that that is how my life has been in the past since the diagnosis. It has been a lot of ups and downs and highs and lows. I think people have responded to the fact that I didn't pull that punch and a lot of people have asked me if I feel embarrassed and I don't think anybody would berate me for some of the things that I said and I'm glad I put it out there because that's how it is and I want people to understand that it's what some of these patients have to go through and how difficult it is.
And the thing is that even though I kind of know what to expect, I can't imagine for those patients who don't, since I have that medical background I feel that I'm kind of helping to share that with those who don't know and may feel embarrassed and to let them know that they didn't have to feel that way and hopefully give them the courage to speak up or let their physicians know what's going on.
Has this ongoing battle changed you as a person? Do you feel like it has or has it merely tapped into something that was already there inside you as far as your personality?
I think one of the biggest things that I've noticed just emotionally it really awakens you from the perspective that everything is amplified in terms of your feelings, whether it be pain or pleasure, everything becomes amplified because time is short and you know that you'll get through it or whatever, you realize that you have to tell the people that you love that you love them and realize that my time is limited, to make the most of that. Because most of the time people think that we have forever and we might not need to say things to certain people that they care about, but this is just through the last couple years, I'm very much more prone to crying a lot easier and letting my emotions show a lot more versus before. That part has definitely changed me. It's obviously kind of a progression, but once you hit a certain state, you're kind of in that free emotion, unfettered, where you're able to tell anybody anything because this is it, because I don't have much time left.
Andrew Youssef: An Appreciation of a Life Well Lived
Last Shot column archives
Our cover story on Andrew Youssef
Trent Reznor's Stunning Tribute to Andrew Youssef in Las Vegas
Slide Show of Andrew Youssef's Best Photography