By Joel Siegel
August 06, 2001 12:00 PM

On the eve of his third operation for cancer, Joel Siegel sat in his two-bedroom Manhattan apartment reflecting on his life and the illness that threatens to end it. “There’s a word in Hebrew,” said Siegel, Good Morning America’s movie critic since 1981. “Dayenu.” On Passover, it’s a refrain in one of the songs. It means ‘enough already.’ That’s what I’m feeling—dayenu.” Having lost his first wife, CBS film editor Jane Kessler, to a brain tumor in 1982 when she was 31, Siegel, now 58, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1997—just months after his sister Phyllis, 54, a social worker in Placerville, Calif., was stricken with squamous cell carcinoma, a common type of skin cancer.

Phyllis’s cancer is now in remission, but Siegel hasn’t been as fortunate. Despite surgery four years ago, and six months of chemotherapy and radiation, a CAT scan in February 2000 revealed that his cancer had spread to his left lung, forcing him back to the operating table to remove a small tumor. “This thing wants to kill me,” says Siegel, who quit smoking almost 20 years ago. “And I don’t know why.”

His sense of being human prey was only compounded, when yet another small malignant growth was discovered—this time on his right lung—prompting his third cancer-related operation since 1997, on June 27. “It’s like, since we’ve been married we’ve been going to New York Hospital,” says his third wife, commercial painter Ena Swansea, 44, whom Siegel married in 1996. “That’s sort of been our home away from home.” This latest surgery may change that. “Apart from the two growths, there’s no disease and he’s otherwise in good health,” says Siegel’s oncologist, Dr. Jeffrey Tepler. “Hopefully, he will continue like that for years to come.”

Siegel returned to the GMA set on July 10, less than two weeks after being released from the hospital, and to overwhelming viewer response. “We’ve been flooded by e-mails,” says GMA co-host Charles Gibson. “Joel professes to answer them all, but if he does, he won’t be doing anything else for the next three months.” In fact Siegel plans to maintain the same work schedule he had before. “I don’t have to lift up the movies; I just have to watch them,” he says with a laugh. “What I do isn’t so hard.” What has been difficult, as he recently told correspondent Bob Meadows, is explaining his health problem to his only child, son Dylan, now 3.

I told Dylan [about the recurrence] when we were at our country home in Connecticut. We were sitting on his bed reading A Visit to the Sesame Street Hospital. In the book, Grover has a sore throat, and Grover’s mom tells Grover he needs to go to the hospital to have his tonsils out. After we read the book I said, “You know, Daddy has to go to the hospital because he has a boo-boo and they have to take it out.” Dylan looked at me and said, “Can Mommy and me go with you?”

I was able to keep from crying, but I don’t know how. I looked at him and said, “You can’t go with me, but you can come visit.” I said it as matter-of-factly as I would say, “Daddy’s going to work” or “Daddy’s going to the movies.” Inside, I was concerned. You wonder what the kid thinks. Does he understand?

Something with my first wife, Jane, that I learned is that this is also a lot easier for the patient than the spouse. As the patient you’ve got two choices—you’re either going to live or you’re going to die. As the spouse, you’re powerless. Something is happening that is critical to your life and there’s nothing you can do about it.

One of the things that’s gotten me through all this is that I’m a reporter. As a reporter you’re invincible; you can do things you’d never do in real life. I’ve done stories where I’ve sat on a ledge 20 stories up in Times Square. In real life, I’m afraid of heights. I think it helps me to be able to disassociate myself from all this a lot of the time.

Not that I’m completely immune. I had a moment of panic a few weeks ago where I was thinking, “This is it for me.” And I’m not ready to go. I was even thinking about shaving off my mustache before the surgery. I’ve had it since I was in the Army in 1967, so I thought, “If the Angel of Death comes looking for me, he won’t recognize me.” But I didn’t, because I had been going through enough changes already.

The morning of my surgery, Dylan brought me two books we had bought him—Jenny’s in the Hospital and Curious George Goes to the Hospital. He said, “Before you go, can you read me these?” It was emotional, but in a very positive way. He knew where I was going and he understood the gravity of it, but he knew not to be afraid, and so everything was good.

The surgery lasted about an hour and a half. The next morning I was shocked that I felt as good as I did. In fact I jokingly accused the surgical team of not doing the surgery—that was the only way I could imagine feeling so good. I was able to walk a little bit, and the second day Dylan came to visit me.

I’m not sure if it was better for him to see me or for me to see him. He wasn’t frightened of all the things that were beeping; he was curious about them, so we turned them into something interesting, answering his questions. Everything was demystified for him.

That’s one of the things I want to be able to do: demystify cancer, so that maybe people will get diagnosed and will get checkups and won’t be so afraid. Like with telling Dylan about my cancer: If you lie to your kids, whenever it is that they find out, it really hurts. “Why didn’t Daddy trust me? Why didn’t Daddy tell me?”

A couple of weeks ago in the country, Dylan and I saw a butterfly. I thought it was alive and I said, “Look, Dylan, a butterfly.” He walked over to it and it was dead. He said, “Why is it dead?” I said, “Butterflies don’t live long—that’s why they fly all the time.” That’s how life is.

What I have to realize is that I might not be around when Dylan’s older. I may not make it, so I’ve been writing a history for him. There are things I want him to know. I want him to know about being Jewish. I had a lot of relatives killed in the Holocaust, but I want him to know he’s related to people who survived.

I want him to know little things, too. My father died when I was in my 40s. I knew him, but there were things I didn’t learn about him until he was gone. After he died, I learned that when he was 9 years old he ran a hose into my grandfather’s Model T, so that when my grandfather opened the car door, there was four feet of water in there. If I’d known that as a kid, I could have gotten away with anything!

Cancer changes your life, often for the better. You learn what’s important, you learn to prioritize, and you learn not to waste your time. You tell people you love them. My friend Gilda Radner [who died of ovarian cancer in 1989 at age 42] used to say, “If it wasn’t for the downside, having cancer would be the best thing and everyone would want it.” That’s true. If it wasn’t for the downside.