Beads of sweat stream down the face and spikes the auburn hair on top of chef Eric B. LeVine’s head. His ZZ Top-like salt and pepper beard is hidden in a white, nylon beard cover. He seems to move at a rate of 100 miles per minute, banging and shuffling seasoned skillets with filled Brussels sprouts, and wide zucchini ribbons over waist-high blue flames inside the brightly-lit kitchen of his prohibition-era themed gastropub, Paragon Tap and Table in Clark, NJ. The humid air is perfumed with toasted garlic, pesto, and beefy smoke, or smoky beef.
LeVine shouts, “One, two… five burgers all day. One rare. One, two, no… the rest, medium. Yous got that?”
“Yes, chef!” Chef LeVine’s kitchen brigade simultaneously affirms his Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn-accented request. He announces the last entrees of the evening. LeVine motions for one of his sous chefs to finish sautéing the vegetables. He walks over to the other side of the kitchen near a desk overfilled with vendor receipts and Point of Sale tickets.
LeVine rolls up the sleeves of his black chef’s jacket to partially reveal his full tattoo sleeves. On his right arm, just above his wrist bears a “5” in black. The number is interwoven with other black tattoos in an intricate, geometric Maori tribal art style.
The number 5 represents how many times LeVine has beaten cancer.
First, LeVine was diagnosed with Chondrosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Second, came the diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. Third and fourth diagnoses were acute myelogenous leukemia, or ACL, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Richter’s Syndrome, a rare and aggressive type of acute adult leukemia was the fifth cancer diagnosis LeVine received from doctors. LeVine has beaten cancer five times and has been in remission for nearly 8 years.
Twenty-one years ago, when he was 29, Eric LeVine first heard his bones crack every time he got in and out of bed. After a couple of months, he started to worry.
A self-proclaimed “hefty guy” LeVine said that he thought his weight gain was the product of overeating, and spending lots of hours in the kitchen. He said, “I figured it was just me not going to the gym.” He initially stated that his busy work schedule prevented him from seeing a doctor. However, after a low “hmm… mmm” and eye-roll from his wife, Lorraine, LeVine admited that his pride, his feeling of invincibility, and the fear of the unknown kept him from addressing his health.
“I had this wonderful life. I was newly married. We had our two children. I just published a book. I was paying it forward by helping at that time, young caterers. I was doing all the things I was good at and that I loved. I just didn’t believe any of that could be taken away from me.”-Chef Eric B. LeVine
Lorraine chimed in, “Eric focuses on the now, on today, on this very moment. Life moves fast, right?” Her arm is underneath his as they sit side-by-side, surrounded by cherry wood paneled walls, cobalt glasses, and freshly-pressed white tablecloths.
Lorraine continues, “He has goals; professional, personal, and health goals, right? But it’s all predicated on this moment and how he does things now to be better tomorrow.”
Nearly two years after his first hip bone cracked, LeVine was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma.
LeVine said, “When I found out that I had cancer for the first time, I decided not to say anything to my family for about six weeks.”
Chef Eric LeVine is a 5-time cancer survivor. However, like so many others who have been diagnosed with the disease, he did not want to be a burden to his loved ones.
“I had a lot to consider, LeVine said. “I had thought about the pressure and concern they would all have for me. I thought about the weight that would put on them, the worry they would have, and I just didn’t want them to worry. I have always been the one to carry my friends and family. To help when I could. To be the strong one. I didn’t want to be perceived as needy or weak. It’s just not in my DNA.”
Individuals diagnosed with cancer may be unable to control the division of abnormal cells mutating in their body, but they can control the messaging, experts say, deciding whether their cancer is common knowledge or a well-managed secret.
“I think control is an important issue,” said Dr. Kenneth Richmond, MD, a psychiatrist at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at UPMC in Pittsburgh, PA. “There are many reasons why people choose to keep their own cancer diagnoses to themselves.”
Many cancer survivors are hesitant to share their diagnosis to maintain control over their relationships or interactions with family and friends. Survivors want to avoid placing burden on their loved ones and avoid having to support those who are overwhelmed or grieving. This applies even to celebrities.
On January 10, 2016, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his album, Blackstar, music legend David Bowie died from liver cancer after being diagnosed 18 months prior. After being in the spotlight for more than 50 years, the rock icon’s death and cancer diagnosis was a surprise to both fans and friends.
Best-selling novelist, Jackie Collins was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. She informed her sister, famed 1980s actress Joan Collins only two weeks before her death in September 2015.
“Some individuals may choose to stay silent to protect their privacy and emotional stability,” said Dr. Katherine Puckett, Chief of Mind-Body Medicine at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Chicago. “Sometimes when people are diagnosed with cancer, they receive a lot of advice from friends, family members and others. Their intentions are good, but the stories can be scary and could make a person feel worse. Keeping a diagnosis a secret keeps those opinions away.”
Chef LeVine said, “I’ve learned that little things go a long way. One question I get all the time is, ‘How do I help my daughter, or my spouse, or my best friend [who’s going through cancer treatments]? I want to make them feel better and be sure they are okay.”
“My best advice has been to not burden [them] with your worries. Not only does the individual have to worry about what they are going through, but now you have just saddled them with your worry.”-Chef Eric B. LeVine
LeVine’s suggestion may very well be justified.
A 2008 study that interviewed over 160 breast cancer survivors found that many of them were unwillingly and unexpectedly forced into the role of caretaker for overwhelmed friends and family shortly after revealing their cancer diagnosis.
Not sharing a cancer diagnosis may also include the risk of not obtaining assistance from others.
“You may deny yourself emotional and psychological support and the other help you need, like running errands and doing daily chores. Dr. Puckett said in a 2016 CTCA blog post. “If support or assistance is needed, but people aren’t allowed to help, they are denied the chance to give in a way they want.”
As for LeVine, “For me, it was my battle every time, my fight.” His advice to those who want to support their loved ones facing cancer: “Be there for him or her, love them, support them, don’t drag them down. It’s a tough enough battle.”
“I think the whole goal is to make people feel comfortable,” LeVine said. There’s no pretensions. A gastropub is meant to be comfortable and excite the mind and palate. It’s about the entire dining experience.”
“I was able to roll with the punches and adapt quickly when things went wrong.”