About a year and a half ago, actor, writer and stand-up comic David Nelson had a pain in his stomach. He didn’t think too much about it until the pain refused to go away, and eventually it sent him to several different doctors and hospitals. Even then, he didn’t think it was anything incredibly serious.
“I was thinking worst case scenario, it was an ulcer,” Nelson says with a laugh. “Or maybe I was allergic to bread.”
Sadly, that wasn’t the worst case. “They finally diagnosed me with Stage Four colon cancer,” he says. “And that was not even on my radar.”
Nelson immediately began chemotherapy treatments, which made the lifelong performer unable to go out and get onstage, a problem he talked about with a friend who gave him an idea.
“I called one of my friends in L.A. and he asked if I was doing any performing,” Nelson says. “And I said, ‘Dude, I’m sick. I can’t go out!’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you start a blog and get it out there?'”
That idea made sense to Nelson, someone who had always made his material about his own life.
“My work has always been autobiographical, starting back in my days as a stand-up,” he says. “Someone told me very early on if you write about your life, no one can steal from you. And I truly believe that the things that are the most personal are also the most universal. If I can write about this incredibly personal thing that’s happening to me, I bet I can touch on something that other people are going through as well. It will enable them to not feel so alone when they’re going through it.”
The “chemo blog,” as Nelson called it, that he began writing on his website was initially meant for his family and friends to keep up with his progress. It eventually became so popular and he and his writing partner, Adam Knight, decided to create a play out of it, a one-man show called Stages. In an extended monologue, though it comes off more like a conversation with the audience, Nelson details his diagnosis, the spiraling of his mind in a million different directions as he tries to deal with the information, and his body’s reaction to chemotherapy.
Did we mention that Stages is really funny? Nelson finds plenty of moments to laugh at throughout the play, including a moment where he sits down to watch the animated series Archer to take his mind off things, only to find out the main character has been diagnosed with cancer. There’s also his first trip to the emergency room, which has him questioning whether or not he’s experiencing a legitimate emergency.
“I mean… I’m checking in with a receptionist,” Nelson writes. “There’s valet parking out front.”
“I think we’ve written a very funny play about a very tense topic, which to me it’s my favorite kind of art,” he says. “I really believe that art is humanity’s attempt to understand the world around them, and the way I do so is through theater. I was given this thing that I was completely unprepared to handle, and it was a perfect thing to write about.”
It was also something that kept Nelson going through the ravages of chemo, a process that often left him sick and exhausted.
“I was writing Stages while I was on the treatment, and that was mentally taxing,” he says. “There were times that the writing was really difficult because of the steroids I was on, but I love writing so much, it kind of became a way of dealing with it. If I was sick on a certain day, I would think, ‘I can write about this tomorrow.’ It gave me a purpose, a meaning.”
Which might make one wonder if a one-man show is the best idea for someone still in recovery. But Nelson says he’s on much milder meds now, and that ultimately, being onstage is the best treatment.
“I’m still in chemo, but it’s oral, which is not as demanding as the big drugs I was on back in October,” he says. “Physically, I’m fine, and I just love performing so much that it gives me extra energy.”
Ultimately, Nelson says that Stages has served a therapeutic purpose for him, and he wouldn’t mind it doing so for others.
“That’s one of the things that art can do; if I share my story, you might see something in your story reflected in that,” he says. “Then we have a connection, and we’re not so alone in the world. But honestly, the first and most important thing is that I want people to leave thinking that that was a great play. That’s number one. That’s the most important thing I try to do: I want to be worth the babysitter.”