Former Sony PR Exec Steve Elzer: How to Have Cancer and Work in Hollywood

How to Have Cancer and Work in Hollywood Illo - H 2014
Illustration by: R. Kikuo Johnson

How to Have Cancer and Work in Hollywood Illo - H 2014

Writing for THR, the industry vet (and current cancer-free head of Elzer & Associates) recalls what it was like to be up-front about his health vulnerabilities during a big summer for the studio

This story first appeared in the Sept. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It all began innocently enough. I was walking up a flight of stairs thinking, "Wow, I'm pretty winded. Not good." When this occurred, early in 2012, I flashed back to a former New Line boss who talked about the same shortness of breath while climbing stairs. Days later, he had emergency bypass surgery.

I made an urgent appointment to see my doctor. After my visit, he called to say there was a shadow on my chest X-ray. A large tumor had attached itself to my heart and lung, which needed to come out right away. As he dropped the "C" bomb, I went numb. It was like I was talking to an adult in a Peanuts cartoon. His words became incoherent noise.

As a publicist, my first instinct was to figure out how I was going to break this very frightening news to my family. After all my years of PR training and spin, my 14-year-old daughter didn't buy a word of, "Dad is going to have minor surgery soon." Within minutes, she had gone online and come back with a precise diagnosis. Malignant thymic carcinoma. A disease so obnoxiously rare, we had to fly to Indiana to meet the country's leading specialist, who said there were fewer than six people in the state who had it.

I needed to let certain people at the studio know. But what was I supposed to reveal when I was full of fear and not sure of the outcome myself? In an industry where perceived vulnerability can be weaponized against you, most executives tend to closely guard their health secrets. Yet in this social-media age, a number of colleagues are choosing to reveal more than ever before about their medical challenges. (One industry friend recently posted a Facebook photo of a very inflamed surgical incision that I don't think I will ever be able to erase from my memory. And another young exec openly shared news of a heart valve replacement.) Is there such a thing as benign candor in a town better known for schadenfreude than kindness? For me, sharing selective health updates on social media was the most effective and efficient way to combat rumors, especially in the early days when my family was overwhelmed by inquiries.

Before that, I told a few direct members of my team and my bosses at Sony, all of whom could not have been more caring or supportive. We were about to launch a very ambitious summer slate with the Spider-Man reboot and Men in Black III. And as odd as it seems with a tumor terrorizing me, all I wanted to do was go back to work. Returning to Sony after eight weeks of recovery from surgery meant coming back to some kind of normalcy beyond being the human pin cushion that is a cancer patient. Yes, there were days when I would lie on the couch in the office and take calls while popping nausea meds like M&Ms. But no one ever said a peep if I left the office midday to go to one of many doctor appointments.

As I went through my long recovery, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of cards, letters, flowers and care packages. Some of the most touching notes came from journalists with whom I had tussled over the years. One traveled 40 miles to our home with a step stool and dinner platter for my family when he heard I was having trouble getting into bed. This display of community compassion continued, and I am grateful to say I am now two years cancer-free thanks to Dr. Michael Bush, brilliant surgeon Dr. Robert McKenna, great oncologist Dr. Fred Rosenfelt and a fantastic radiologist team led by Dr. Amin Mirhadi.

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