For Photojournalist Andrew Youssef, Life Was Music. Then Came Cancer
[Editor's note: This article was orginally printed by our sister paper, OC Weekly, where Andrew Youssef is based. Youssef is the author of the Last Shot column that we have been running, which chronicles his struggle against cancer in his own words.]
With sneakers squeaking on white tiles, Andrew Youssef roams Long Beach Memorial Hospital. It's 5:30 p.m., and for the bespectacled, well-mannered pharmacist, that means quitting time. He isn't heading home to a sloshy TV dinner, a plush couch and HBO. Instead, he can't wait to ditch his scrubs and pursue his true calling -- his night job.
Youssef dips into the locker room and rips off his turquoise jump suit. As a freelance concert photographer for the past seven years, he has shot everyone from Black Sabbath to Cold War Kids. The rush to change and get back into the action has hardly lost its thrill. Switching into his usual all-black uniform of jeans, a T-shirt and a windbreaker, he fetches his trusty Nikon D4 and his blue bag of pills and is off into the neon night.
Nearly three years ago, Youssef was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. Since then, he has held fast in a heroic battle against the illness. His survival rate past five years was less than 6 percent. Today, as the cancer in his body advances, the 38-year-old finds himself nearing the end of his fight; recently, doctors gave him weeks to months to live.
During his epic struggle with the disease, on a good night, if everything went right, Youssef would drive out of the hospital with time to spare, a subtle grin on his face in the waning moments of purple-stained sunlight. Heavy-metal guitars would rattle his car windows. Watching his transformation from hospital pharmacist to a concert photographer, most people would never know they'd witnessed something akin to Clark Kent becoming Superman.
"I wonder how I did it sometimes," Youssef says. "There were times when I'd be up until 3 a.m., and my alarm would ring for me to work at the hospital a few hours later at 6:15 a.m. There's a certain adrenalin you get from being able to do that."
Youssef has the art of preshow prep down to a science. Tips such as clearing his memory cards after every gig and scouting a band's stage lighting are coiled up with nagging reminders to take Lomotil and Imodium to prevent diarrhea, nausea or other stomach problems in the middle of a shoot. He never ate right before a gig. Impeccable hydration was a must.
As he'd zoom down the freeway, he would run through his meticulous mental notes: Has he shot this band before? What's the route to the venue's nearest bathroom should he need to stumble in and throw up? Where should he post up in the photo pit to get a good shot without getting trampled? Exactly how long should he wait for the woozy side effects of his chemo to kick in before ducking out to his car?
Looking back on the stress Youssef has endured for his craft, he recalls the concern of friends who worried he wasn't getting enough rest. "I'll sleep when I'm dead," he remembers thinking. "If I have the energy to do something, I'm gonna do it. Because there's gonna come a time when I won't have it."
From the day of his devastating diagnosis, Youssef has had every opportunity to wallow, shut out the world and let his illness quietly choke whatever spirit he had left. Luckily, he didn't let that happen. Instead, he vigorously embraced his passion as a concert photographer. Powered by relentless, defiant -- some would say bat-shit crazy -- ambition, he crisscrossed Southern California, the country, even the world to capture more than 330 shows since the arrival of the Big C. His day job as a pharmacist in a hospital affords him the professional knowledge of how bad his health situation could get should he push himself too hard.
Despite that, his desire to fulfill his concert and photography bucket list has taken his experience as a fan and his relationships with some of his favorite artists to startling heights. He has befriended rock stars, received beyond royal treatment at shows, even dined with elusive Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor (who now follows him on Twitter).
Lindsey Best Youssef with Page Hamilton of Helmet.
Helmet's Page Hamilton, a revered renaissance man and alt-metal figure since the '90s, used to see Youssef at just about every show the band would play in LA, and in 2007, they struck up a friendship. During the Christmas season after he was diagnosed, Hamilton showed up one day at Youssef's home for a jam session. The squealing white noise of Hamilton's guitar echoed alongside Youssef's deft guitar chugging. "I just felt in my heart at that moment that he was gonna get through it," Hamilton says. "It's just devastating."
Youssef's column for OC Weekly's Heard Mentality blog, Last Shot, recounts his experiences with cancer in harrowing and heartbreaking detail, a stark tribute to his awe-inspiring courage.
It has given his last days one hell of a soundtrack.