For Photojournalist Andrew Youssef, Life Was Music. Then Came Cancer

Categories: Last Shot

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Andrew Youssef
Shooting Black Sabbath at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.
Talk to just about any photographer that has shared a pit with Youssef, and tales of his Herculean strength usually coincide with a time post-diagnosis, when he was probably too sick to even be outside. His column describes weeks spent flying across the country: to Chicago to photograph underappreciated '90s bands such as Hum, a sunburnt double weekend in Indio for Coachella, aboard a plane to San Francisco to shoot at Outside Lands. There was the time he photographed two shows on opposite ends of LA County in one night -- catching Muse at the Staples Center in a LA, then his favorite post-punk act Quicksand at the Glass House in Pomona, at least an hour away.

Much thanks for this feat is owed to his savior/nemesis chemo drug Erbitux (Cetuximab), which often prevented him from falling asleep. But it was the abnormal (or perhaps normal) part of his psyche that allowed him to see his compulsion to stay up all night doing what he loved as an advantage. "One could argue that most healthy people shouldn't try to accomplish such things," he wrote in one column. "Good thing I'm not healthy."

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Lindsey Best
Last Shot column photo.
Youssef's coverage of his battle with cancer serves as a topographical map of the daily peaks and valleys in his fight for survival. Usually, the bad (his crippling loss of strength, medication-induced acne rashes and mood swings) felt every bit as real as the good (befriending NYC alt-metal outfit Helmet, getting guitars signed by his idols Meshuggah, impulsive flights to catch shows in Godknowswhere, USA).

Folded into the emotional aspect of his weekly commentary has been tips for cancer patients -- know your medications inside and out, be your own advocate and never be scared to ask for a better explanation from your doctor. It's the kind of mentality, coupled with his wit and knowledge as a pharmacist, that made him the best and worst patient.

"I'm the best in that [doctors] automatically assume I know everything about my condition, so they miss telling me some things they should've told me," he explains. "But I'm the worst in that they know if they mess up, I'll know about it and be able to call them out very quickly."

Through the column, Youssef says, he hopes to inspire other patients to tear the skin off their polite, jargon-filled discourse with doctors and ask for their disease and their treatment to be explained in, as Youssef's mother would put it, "living-room language."
"What's happening with that blog is part of the future," says Caroline, adjusting her glasses and streaks of gray hair while sitting at home next to her husband, a balding, Egyptian-born immigrant. "People are going to be blogging about their illnesses and sharing their complaints and sharing things the health community is not talking to them about."

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