“ You can either brace for the impact, or you can get run over. Knowledge is power.
Dan Duffy is a “Kick mAss Story Teller!” Dan has over 20 years of experience in radio, film and video. In 2008, he created Dan Duffy Productions LLC. In 2010 he created a unique 501c3 nonprofit organization, The Half Fund. The Half Fund is dedicated to producing projects through commercially viable artistic mediums. They support projects designed to educate the general public on the realities that come with a cancer diagnosis, including hurdles both seen and unseen during treatment and recovery. We were lucky to catch up with him and ask him a few questions.
mK: Thanks for doing this Dan! What/ when was your diagnosis? How did you find out about your diagnosis?
DD: I was diagnosed in March of 2002 with testicular cancer, or a simple seminoma. And I found out about it in a fairly abnormal way. I originally saw a doctor that wanted to do a C/T scan, which turned up a massive tumor in my abdomen. He wanted to get a biopsy to confirm, so the next day, they cut me open. Four days later, I got a call from my oncologist, whom I met right before my biopsy. He said, “We’ve hit a homerun! It’s testicular?” I replied, “So you’re saying I have cancer?” “Yes, but it’s great news! It’s testicular!”
To which I responded, “NO…you’re saying I have cancer.” At that moment, it hit him that I didn’t share his original optimism, and he finally realized that he was telling someone that he had something looking to kill him.
mK: Yikes! What were your symptoms?
DD: My main symptom was back pain. It started about nine months before my diagnosis. At first, it would just hurt from time to time. But for my final four months before diagnosis, the pain grew into the chronic stage. It got to a point to where I couldn’t walk upright. I tried chiropractic care as well as an epidural steroid injection, and nothing worked. And finally while doing stretches, I felt something move in my abdomen. I found a small lump that felt about as hard as a golf ball. The lump was the tip of a very large iceberg of a tumor. The pain came from the cancer growing out of control, and trying to encroach to the right side of my abdomen from the left. In other words, my lower spine was being continually pushed sideways.
mK: Why did you get involved with advocacy? What does The Half Fund do?
DD: I did not start out to be an advocate. I decided in my search for catharsis that I would write a screenplay, as I was already in the film and video industry. But after writing a crappy script, enough people with influence read it and said that I should try to make it. And while considering it, I thought about how it might impact others, how it might allow others to avoid some of the pitfalls that I ran into on my road. And as that idea grew, so did the idea of the Half Fund.
The eventual goal of the Half Fund is to fund artistic projects that further cancer education…projects like books and music and films and documentaries. They must be commercially viable, because anyone who gets funding from us must agree to split their net profits in half…half to any cancer charity of their choosing, and half comes back to us where we give it away again. So in a sense, the cycle can go on forever, or as long as we still have to deal with this disease.
mK: Pretty cool! There are a lot of amazing stories out there! Who are your personal heroes?
DD: Honestly, my heroes are those who see something in the world that can be made better, and they get off the couch to do it. Some people include Wayne Elsey, who started Soles4Souls after seeing the Tsunami in Thailand. Or Dr. Sheri Phillips, who had to give up her medical practice from the lymphedema caused by breast cancer. She turned around and became an advocate, and eventually the spokesperson for the Susan G. Komen “Three Day Walks” around the country.
And then you have people like Andy Pierce, a guy who figured out a way to use a bicycle and a swimming pool pump to irrigate land that couldn’t be irrigated before. His invention may one day turn much of the river deltas in Africa green again. It’s absolutely remarkable.
mK: Very cool. What motivates you?
DD: My children motivate me. I want to help make a better world for them. I want to share with them what I know, so that they can change the world in their own ways. My meaning of life is simple: to leave the world a better place than you found it. And if I can do that with Sam and Ben, and maybe another few people along the way, then I can say to myself that I did okay with the gifts that I’ve been given.
mK: When was the first time you felt like yourself after your diagnosis?
DD: You have to know that pain was slowly killing me. There is nothing more debilitating, or more life altering, than chronic pain. It affects everything you do, from the time you wake up in the morning until the moment you finally find relief through sleep. The first time I felt like myself was about 12 days after I started chemotherapy. That was the first day that I didn’t feel nauseas, and my pain had subsided substantially.
But the day I finally felt like all of it was over was the day when I walked into the cryogenic lab at Washington University in 2010. I walked up with my renewal slip and said, “I won’t be renewing anymore. We have two boys, and they’re healthy. Thanks.” And I walked out with a smile on my face.
mK: Hee heeWhat makes you laugh, cry, angry?
DD: Everything makes me laugh. My wife’s goofiness, my children’s jokes, Anchorman. I’m easy to please.
Everything else makes me cry. A great piece of music, my boys telling me that I’m the best dad ever, What Dreams May Come, and picturing Jesus being born on Christmas night…a tiny baby born in some extreme circumstances to people who were beyond terrified for so many reasons. It’s pure guts, even from a simply historical standpoint.
Angry: Probably two things actually anger me. One is when I see people trying to take advantage of me. I’m a big believer in being fair with anyone I deal with, and when people take advantage of that fairness, it irks me. The other thing that really makes me angry is someone who thinks anyone with a different viewpoint is an idiot. I’ve even been told on a few occasions, “I expected more out of you.”
Just what the hell does that even mean? We are entitled to our opinions, and if anything, I’m entirely civil and will always hear someone out with a different viewpoint, so that I can use it to possibly learn something new, myself. But to have someone say something like that not only belittles the person, it also attempts to make that person feel like an idiot.
mK: What would you say is the most interesting thing you’ve done?
DD: It’s a tie…one is professional, one is personal.
Professional: In the truest sense of a blind pig finds a truffle, I got to give a TEDx talk in Sarasota this past October. I met some amazing people, and I guess I proved to myself that I can stand in front of a crowd and give myself over to the process. I never thought I was capable. I had a lot of help from my family, and especially my coaches Jerry Jordan and Judy Winslow. They helped me immensely.
Personal: My wife and I had our marriage blessed by Pope John Paul II. I’ll save you the details of that story, but suffice it to say that when we met him, I was wearing a suit that I’d bought thirty pounds prior, and Stephanie was wearing her sister’s 8th grade Confirmation dress, a 3rd grade Holy Communion veil, and shoes bought at K-Mart for under $10. He had really soft hands. And the red shoes were cool. And we went to McDonald’s in Rome a half hour later.
mK: HAHAHA! If ya went to McDonalds with the Pope… that would be a great story! What was the toughest challenge you faced as a survivor? How did you overcome it?
DD: My toughest challenge is also my greatest reward. People know that I am not scared of cancer. I have no problems talking about it, and I have no problems being around it. Because of this, whenever someone close to a friend is diagnosed, I get a phone call. Can you talk to this person? Can I give this person your number? Could I ask a favor?
And the answer is ALWAYS yes. It’s unbelievably rewarding, and no matter how hard some situations are, I always find myself coming out of the interaction a better person than I was going in.
And I hope I never overcome the pain that is sometimes associated with it. The last thing I ever want to become is numb. If I’m given the privilege of being with someone during a moment of crisis or need, I am honored to walk with them, no matter how hard it may be.
mK: What is your guilty pleasure?
DD: Fries. All of them. Burger King has these new “Satisfries.” Crappy name. AMAZING fries. That whole last meal, deserted island food? Fries.
mK: HAHAHA! If you could send an anonymous 30 word message to yourself 20 years in the past what would you say?
DD: “Do not ever settle for anything or anyone. Choose things that knock you on your ass in a good way. And everything happens for a reason, good or bad.”
mK: What do you like to do in your spare time?
DD: Most of the time, I love playing board games or UNO with our boys, or I like sitting on the couch with my wife Stephanie. She reads me funny Facebook statuses while we drink wine.
As for just me time, though, I love playing piano. I’ve been playing since I was 5, but haven’t taken lessons since I was 12. The interesting thing is that I’ve become a better player than ever over the last five years, because for some reason, I started seeing the keyboard differently in my head. I don’t know if a switch changed in my brain, but I’m able to work songs out now that I was never able to do in the past. And I love hearing an amazing new song on the radio and trying to work it out.
And the boys love it when I play the theme song to “Power Rangers Samurai.” They dance like madmen, and then scream “AGAIN!!!”
mK: What are you up to now?
DD: We’re going to try a new avenue for fundraising that popped up right before Christmas. I don’t want to jinx it, but I’ll definitely let you know how things are going. And I finally started taking better physical care of myself. Both of our boys started taking Tae Kwon Do last year, and because it’s so crazy expensive, the studio allows the whole family to take it if at least two family members take it. I have to say that it is the greatest thing I’ve ever done for myself, physically. It’s also the one thing that I do in life where I think about absolutely nothing else, because if my mind wanders, I’ll get kicked in the head. And I don’t want to be kicked in the head.
mK: Any advice for people or loved ones that get daunting diagnoses?
DD: My first advice is take a breath. My friend Wayne always says, “Never make a huge decision without sleeping on it first.” I’m not saying to not face it head on, but sometimes you just need to take a breath.
I would also look for as much information as you can find. When I was diagnosed, I did much of my research on the American Cancer Society website, which was very helpful.
Some people think that’s not a great thing to do, because you can needlessly scare the crap out of yourself, but I have the opposite feeling. I’m a big believer in the fact that cancer is going to hit you like a truck. Always. Period. You can either brace for the impact, or you can get run over. Knowledge is power.
mK: Tell us something about yourself that people probably didn’t know… anything.
DD: I still have the same Teddy bear that I received on my first Christmas. His name is Teddy, he’s been rebuilt several times (needs it again), and he quietly sits on the top of my son Sam’s bookcase hutch. I catch a glimpse of him every now and again and I think about all that I’ve been able to experience in 41 years, and how, please God, I can’t wait to see what the next 41 bring.
mK: Any parting words for all the mAss Kickers?
DD: Tell your story. Please. The more stories we tell, the more people we can help. It’s through stories that The Half Fund looks to lift the veil on cancer, and it’s through stories that we can commiserate, embolden each other, and take every lick of power away from cancer as humanly possible.
Dan Duffy: Teddy Bear lover, Kick mAss Tae Kwon Do-er, piano player, french fry connoisseur, loving father/husband, and driven cancer advocate. Check out The Half Fund when you get the chance. Thanks again Dan. We look forward to your movie!