SALT LAKE CITY — Jeff Metcalf is wearing galoshes as he stands in his kitchen. The floor is dry here, but not so in a rental unit managed by he and his wife, Alana. Over at the rental, a root system has snaked its way up the plumbing, causing the pipes to burst earlier that day.
“The renter called me and said, ‘We’ve got a little bit of water,’” Jeff Metcalf explained. “And I get over there, and there’s water everywhere.”
It’s a problem years in the making — imperceptible until the flooding starts. Jeff Metcalf has become pretty familiar with problems like that.
‘It’s just really odd to be this weak’
A few days after this interview, Jeff and Alana Metcalf, and their two children flew to Denmark, where Jeff Metcalf’s comedic stage play, “A Slight Discomfort,” will be at the Danish performing arts theater Teatret Svalegangen beginning March 23. “A Slight Discomfort” chronicles Metcalf’s early struggles with stage 4 prostate cancer, which he’s had for the past 15 years. When he was first diagnosed after a routine physical, Metcalf said his doctors gave him a 20 percent chance of living another two years.
“I had friends that had much, much better prognoses than I did, that aren’t around anymore,” he said.
Those 15 years have been filled with radiation treatments, clinical trials and even a prostatectomy. Through most of that time, “A Slight Discomfort” has entertained and educated audiences with its mix of humor, anger and vulnerability.
Still, his cancer has persisted. For the past few months, Metcalf has been in an aggressive, experimental chemotherapy study. He says it’s the first time he’s lost significant weight and energy, and the first time he’s taken sick leave from his English professor job at the University of Utah. It’s also caused blood clots in his lungs, for which he’s been injecting blood thinners twice a day.
His new chemotherapy drugs were described to him as an exploding grenade: It might kill his cancer; it definitely kills his immune system.
“The only thing I’ve ever had before is cancer; I don’t get a cold,” he said. “It’s just really odd to be this weak.”
Not that he’s wallowing. Metcalf describes himself as a “disgustingly, hopelessly romantic optimist about life.” He said he writes every day and has published four books in the past decade. And the Denmark trip has been 10 years in the making. In 2008, he was contacted by an assistant director of a theater in Denmark. The director heard an early version of “A Slight Discomfort” on NPR, and thought it would be a good fit for his theater. Scandinavian countries have some of the highest prostate cancer rates among western countries. After the economic downturns of 2008, though, the partnership got shelved. Then, six months ago, that same director called Metcalf to resurrect the project.
“You’re still alive,” he told Metcalf.
“I hadn’t thought about that,” Metcalf recalled. “Really, dying pretty much stays out of my narrative. I have to think what I have is a chronic disease and not a death sentence. Because it’s been stage 4 forever.”
When Metcalf was first diagnosed, he began keeping a journal about his cancer experiences — “And you know, I’d read it in the darkest moments, and there’d always be something funny in there,” he said. After a few years, he turned those journal entries into an essay, which he unveiled at a public reading in 2006.
Mike Dorrell, a dramaturg for the Salt Lake Acting Company, was in the audience, and commissioned Metcalf to adapt his essay for the stage.
After more than 30 rewrites, “A Slight Discomfort” became a one-man show — with a single actor playing Metcalf, Metcalf’s mother-in-law, Metcalf’s penis and nine other characters — and had a successful six-week run locally before branching out to a handful of locations outside Utah. While there’s a lot of back-and-forth between all these characters, Metcalf said “A Slight Discomfort” is essentially a conversation between him and the men in the audience. In his estimation, men don’t talk nearly enough about their health problems — particularly prostate cancer — with one another. For years, he regularly played tennis with five other men, “and two of them had prostate cancer, and never said anything,” he noted.
Metcalf remembers sitting in his urologist’s office — a clinic especially for men — drinking water out of a pink breast cancer awareness bottle. The inconsistencies are not lost on him.
“The NFL is fundraising for breast cancer, but every guy on the field is going to have (prostate cancer),” he said. “So without question, we’re not talking about it.”
“A Slight Discomfort” became Metcalf’s way of talking about it. Alana Metcalf said her husband has gotten better at communicating since his initial diagnosis, “but I still think he doesn’t want to worry people and tell them too much,” she added. When it comes to doctor visits, though, Jeff Metcalf goes out of his way to talk, to get every detail, to exhaust every medical possibility.
“When I go with him, it’s like this old boys club. They all know him,” Alana Metcalf said. “And I think it’s because he’s taken responsibility for his own healthcare. It’s made a whole lot of difference.”
This doesn’t always go smoothly — Jeff Metcalf admits he’s occasionally had a falling out with certain doctors — but he thinks it’s also extended his life considerably.
“Not compromising your curiosity, and being educated about what you have, is really important,” he said. “Men don’t do that. If you’re told you’re going to die in probably less than a year, most of us go, ‘Oh, OK,’ and die in less than a year. And I think my combative sort of nature has kept me alive. Am I angry with them? No. But I want good science.”
The show must go on
After its premiere at Teatret Svalegangen, Metcalf said “A Slight Discomfort” will tour throughout Denmark at smaller regional theaters. Ever since the play was first conceived, he said it’s been his goal to outlive it. Given its adoption overseas, and Metcalf’s current health, it’s hard to say exactly how that goal will play out.
“People really didn’t realize how sick he was because he didn’t look sick, and he was always able to just really muscle through,” Alana Metcalf said. “This is the first time that he really does look different and feel different.”
Believe it or not, Jeff Metcalf claims there are days he doesn’t even think about cancer. His own personal relationship with the disease — the way he perceives it, the degree to which he lets it define him — is tricky. He’s remained incredibly active in the 15 years since his diagnosis, with many projects that have nothing to do with cancer. “A Slight Discomfort” has become somewhat definitive, though. The play, he concedes, is probably the most important thing he’s ever done, and it’s taken him years to accept that truth.5 comments on this story
As Metcalf sits in his living room — galoshes still on his feet — a chorus of birds outside can be heard through the kitchen’s screen door. Chickadees, probably. Winter is finally giving way to spring. Over the next few months, this cacophony of chirps will become commonplace until it hardly registers. For now, though, it’s gloriously apparent.
“I wasn’t one of these people who said, ‘I’ve got cancer, I’ve got to stop and smell the roses,’” Metcalf said. “I’ve had my face in roses my whole life.”