Benjamin Rubenstein is a cancer-slaying superman. That’s what he calls himself in his book, “Twice: How I Became a Cancer-Slaying Super Man before I Turned 21.” The 34-year-old Arlington resident sat down for a beer at The Dubliner to talk about his illness, forgiveness and never drinking the same beer twice.
You had a couple bouts with cancer. Tell me about that.
I first felt pain in my left hip my sophomore year of high school. It was the first day of tennis practice. I pushed the pain aside for many months. I finally told my parents and went through the process of seeing a doctor, getting MRIs, getting a bone scan and I was diagnosed with a type of cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma. It’s rare. I think about 150 Americans are diagnosed a year. Mine was in the top part of the hip bone. So, I got treatment and that lasted a year — my junior year of high school.
That must have been a hard time — to be a teenager and be diagnosed with cancer.
I created all these rules to make it less weird and less bothersome. Like, I didn’t allow myself to cry or complain or show pain or show fear. I wouldn’t allow myself to feel sad or jealous. I kind of forced myself to be non-human. But it worked.
And then you got it again?
Sort of. The treatment for the first cancer caused the second cancer. A year and a half after I finished treatment for the first, I was diagnosed with the second, a cancer of the bone marrow. I got the [bone marrow] transplant April 24, 2003, so I’m close to my 15-year anniversary.
Why did you decide to write about it?
I was working at Hollywood Video back when video stores existed. I was working on a Saturday night and I just randomly got this idea in my head that I should write a book about my experiences. So I just started doing that.
What’s the most memorable response you’ve gotten to your book?
I did a book signing at the Children’s National Medical Center. And they had distributed the book to some of the older adolescent patients. And I went to one boy’s room, who was 19. He hadn’t even finished reading my book because he didn’t want to read past the point in his own treatment that mirrored my treatment, because he had the same cancer I had.
I went to his room and in erasable marker on the window he had written, “I am a cancer-slaying superman.” And then it had my name endearingly misspelled. I was totally blown away.
You went to a retreat on Judaism recently. Did that change the way you think about your Jewish identity?
It did, especially initially. One of the sessions was on forgiveness. In Judaism, there’s all these crazy apology rules. But what stuck with me is that if someone wrongs you, apologizes for it then it’s on you to accept the apology. Like the sense of sin is on you if you don’t accept it.
It came up on the Metro for me recently. Almost every single day, someone asks me to take their seat because I use crutches when I walk long distances. And I always decline out of principle — by a rule I live by. And over the years sometimes they’ll ask twice. Usually I just say, “No, thanks,” but in my head that second time I am like, “Get the f–k away from me.” In a sense, asking me to take their seat is like an apology for the world giving me cancer. And I did not accept that apology. Now, I try hard to appreciate their gesture.
What is your beer goal?
I have this goal of drinking all the beer once and never again. The more I think about why I do this, I think it makes each time I drink a beer more meaningful and more intentional than just drinking another Bud Light.
How do you remember which beers you’ve had?
I don’t remember. That’s one of the effects my cancer treatment has had on me. But I track it in this app [called Untappd], so I can go back and look it up.
Maybe the concept has value because there’s so much that takes our attention away, and how often do we give our attention to just one thing that we’re doing, let alone something as pointless as drinking a beer.
It’s your way to be in the moment.
Yeah. And I do the same thing with movies and books. And I track it all. Which sounds crazy. I track my life. I should do a TED Talk on this.
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Good story and good answers to the questions.
Haha thanks, Dad!
Kind of surprised at printing (both paper and online) of f-word. I realize it was within a quote. Still surprising.
You’re right. That’s not our style. Thank you for pointing it out. It’s been bleeped.
David Holzel, Managing Editor