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Spotlight - What Now, Mr. Magician?

What Now, Mr. Magician?

English prof Jeff Metcalf is battling cancer with a large dose of humor—and honesty.

By Jason Matthew Smith

Any conversation that begins, “You have a 30 percent chance of survival” can’t possibly bode well.

Back in 2004, University of Utah Associate Professor of English Jeff Metcalf BS’74 MEd’77 found himself in an examination room, confronted by a terse, socially awkward doctor who, before uttering “How are ya?” launched into a grim recitation of the odds of beating prostate cancer. When first diagnosed, Metcalf was only in his early fifties, with no indication that anything was wrong. “I was young. I had no symptoms whatsoever,” he says. And the numbers confirm that Metcalf’s odds of even developing prostate cancer at that age were slim: For 50-year-olds, 2.22 percent will develop the disease sometime within 10 years, while all men have a 16 percent chance of being diagnosed with prostate cancer and a 3 percent chance of dying from it.

But the cancer diagnosis—and the bleak analysis of his chances for survival—signaled something else for Metcalf. “Instead of wondering ‘Why me?’ I thought ‘Why not me?’ ” he says. “What do I do now? What’s the most thoughtful way to engage with this? How do I let this disease instruct me? And I think in many ways it has been a great teacher.”

Metcalf decided to write about it, turning his cancer experience into a play, A Slight Discomfort, which debuted in October 2008 at the Salt Lake Acting Company. In the short time since then, the play has been performed at venues across the U.S. and was recently picked up by the Royal Swedish Theatre. It was also recorded for American broadcast on the National Public Radio program Hearing Voices. (Click here, and scroll down to the June 1, 2008, episode “Prostate Diaries.”)

Metcalf’s “cancer diary” entries evolved to become his play A Slight Discomfort.

In the one-man play, the character “Jeff” occasionally asks himself, “What now, Mr. Magician?” He’s pondering his next move, wondering what miracle he can pull out of his hat to stave off uncertainty, fear, death. The latter pops up as a variety of characters in the play, at one point taking on the form of a Vegas blackjack dealer, holding the cards that determine “Jeff’s” fate.

Fate, possibilities, odds, and the whims of “chance” have been a constant thread throughout Metcalf’s life. Take, for instance, the time he snared a set of fly-fishing equipment in a poker game. By pure luck, he ended up with four aces to beat his opponent, and the pot included a bamboo fly rod and custom-made reel—which he had no idea how to use. But he learned. Now, he can be found on a river somewhere one-third of the year, and, always the prolific diarist, he regularly writes about his adventures on American rivers, penning page after page on plucking rainbows and steelheads from mountain streams.

Metcalf was barely a toddler, growing up in San Francisco, when his family moved to New York because of a job opportunity for Jeff’s father, a purchasing agent for the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco). The Metcalfs had been in their new Staten Island home for scarcely a week when Jeff’s father announced he’d been offered a better position in Holland. Unsure of whether to relocate halfway around the world, Metcalf’s parents flipped a coin, and soon they were making preparations to move to the Netherlands.

After five years there, followed by five years in Saudi Arabia, Metcalf and his family returned to the States, this time to Utah, so Jeff’s father could pursue another career opportunity. Just a couple of years later, when he was only in the ninth grade, Jeff—always seeking new experiences—left school to work as a carnival barker. He toured the West, knee-deep in dust and corn dogs, assisting with cobbling together the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Baby Octopus, and the Ferris wheel. “We used to follow the rodeos around—I worked with ex cons. That was a great experience,” Metcalf says. “Then I went back to high school.”

Soon afterward, at age 18, he was working one summer in Tahoe National Forest fighting forest fires when the crew’s cook was killed in a bar fight. Metcalf learned the cook got off firefighting a couple hours early to prep food and volunteered to fill in for the ill-fated chef. “My supervisor asked if I had any experience,” he recalls. Anxious for the job, Metcalf brewed up an outright lie and replied that he had once cooked at the Waldorf Astoria. He was hired on the spot. Hitting the library, he read Julia Child’s cookbooks and learned to pull together a passable meal that at least wouldn’t kill his co-workers. The experience turned him into a hardcore “foodie,” and to this day he is known for whipping up extravagant meals for friends and family. Metcalf notes that even his two kids—daughter Bailey and son John, both of whom attend the U—have learned to tolerate his kitchen experiments.

After receiving a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in education at the U, Metcalf helped initiate the first programs in the state focusing on “at-risk” youth, co-founding Jordan School District’s Valley High School, an alternative school for troubled teens. While there, he created an award-winning literary magazine and newspaper, and, along with two of his students, was granted an exclusive interview with Utah death row inmate John Albert Taylor (convicted in 1996 for strangling and raping an 11-year-old girl) just prior to his execution that year.

Jeff Metcalf

Metcalf arrived at the University of Utah in 2002 to teach education, adolescent literature, playwriting, and the literature of the American West. He also established the Humanities In Focus program, which works with marginalized populations on the West side of Salt Lake City, helping them to tell their stories through documentary films.

Life was looking pretty good, and it appeared Metcalf was on a carefully crafted and satisfying path devoted to fishing, family, food, teaching, and writing.

But in 2004, when Metcalf was diagnosed with cancer, everything changed.

“When I found out I had cancer, I started keeping a separate diary, because cancer didn’t belong in my other diaries,” he says. Not the one about fly fishing. Or the one about food. His “cancer diary” was something different: It harbored the rage, frustration, and shock of his diagnosis—but it contained something else as well. “Even in the darkest moments, what I saw there was light and humor,” he says.

Those diary entries evolved to become A Slight Discomfort. In the play, “Jeff” often engages in dialogue with certain parts of his lower anatomy. The dialogue is sometimes raucously funny, but it’s also blatantly honest about how most men tend to ignore their bodies until something goes terribly wrong. But the play isn’t about scare tactics. Instead, “It has created a conversation between men and health providers,” says Metcalf. “This play has actually saved lives.” He cites numerous examples of men who have made appointments with their physician after a performance of A Slight Discomfort, only to discover that they, too, had prostate cancer.

The play has spurred another type of dialogue as well: that between doctors and patients. It is often performed at hospitals to help physicians better understand what a cancer diagnosis can mean for a patient. “The play sort of takes hospitals to task and asks the difficult questions about how they treat people,” says Metcalf. “And it’s a story about one man going through the system and trying to stay alive… I happen to be very vocal about the way I am treated in the medical world.”

And as the play attests, Metcalf has had plenty of experience navigating the health care system (and the challenges of fighting a serious medical issue) during the last four years. After his prostate was removed, he underwent eight weeks of radiation and a course of injections of Lupron, a female hormone, which essentially threw him into menopause.

For awhile, it appeared that the treatments were working. But the cancer remains. “I’m in a serious knife fight with it,” he says. “I have to look at this as a chronic disease as opposed to a death sentence… I keep my head down and do the things that are important to me. I try not to let it interfere with my daily life, but it’s in the back of my mind. I know what I have.”

Metcalf continues to write, teach, and learn from the disease that has become his instructor.

“One thing I’ve realized is that I’ve had a wonderfully complete life,” he says. “I have no regrets, except that I didn’t kiss my seventh-grade girlfriend.”

And that’s an easy one to live with.

~Learn more about A Slight Discomfort at its website here.

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