Those who doubt that laughter is the best medicine probably haven’t met Bryan Raybon.
My good friend, 32, who this past February was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma, is assistant clinical director for Atlanta-based Positive Impact — and an otherwise vital young man.
Bryan’s illness surfaced innocuously enough late last year, when he began a new workout regimen with a trainer. Ensuing fatigue, nausea and a small bump in his groin area were initially diagnosed as a hernia.
“I met the doctor, who did an exam, and he said, ‘That’s not a hernia. It’s a swollen lymph node,’” Bryan recalls.
Surgery was at first ruled out, and Bryan was given a course of antibiotics to eradicate a suspected infection.
“Oftentimes a lymph node just sort of swells up for no reason, the doctors told me, and it could be a reaction to an infection, like some weird toxicity,” he says. “They said to come back in three weeks if it hasn’t gone away.”
The infection didn’t respond, and grew more acute and larger — “the size of a chicken egg,” Bryan says.
Doctors decided a full biopsy was needed to determine pathology. With few illnesses under his belt in the past, this one was “new and exciting,” Bryan says.
Getting ‘The Call’
That excitement would soon take a different turn as Bryan got the call that anyone would dread.
“‘Sorry to tell you, the pathology came back as lymphoma,’ the doctor said. ‘We don’t know enough about it yet, but please go to see the oncologist this afternoon,’” Bryan remembers hearing.
“So, it began,” he says.
The specific diagnosis was a rare form of cancer called Blastoid Mantle Cell Lymphoma, which comprises roughly 6 percent of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cases, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Reports vary, but there are approximately 15,000 patients located in the United States. The disease is still listed as incurable, according to Lymphoma Australia — although “new therapies may be resulting in prolonged remissions/survival,” the group reports.
Bryan’s doctor shares that optimism, but the gravity of the news was not lost on Bryan.
“I was freaking out, getting really scared, upset — I told my parents, and [Positive Impact Director of Advancement] Michael Baker, who has been my support through this the whole time,” Bryan says.
Drawn to Margaret
In the midst of this shocking diagnosis, Bryan had tickets to see Margaret Cho, his idol and coming-out inspiration, at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center. Because of his treatment, though, he had to remain in the hospital.
During a time when he was quite literally devising ways to beat his illness – even starting a blog for the first time – his heart told him a personal meeting with Margaret would help raise his spirits and provide a much-needed energy boost.
“Margaret was so helpful to me when I was coming out 10 years ago,” Bryan wrote in his initial e-mail to me. “‘I’m the One that I Want’ showed me that you can love yourself for who you are, scars and all, and fuck everybody else. I would love to see her while I still have the immune system for visitors — to see if she would sprinkle a few minutes of her funny magic faerie dust on me.”
Understanding why Bryan sought the comfort of the “Drop-Dead Diva” lies in his initial reaction to Margaret’s groundbreaking material. It washed over him with a great sense of healing after a strict upbringing.
“I grew up in a very conservative, Christian household,” Bryan says. “My parents are smart and educated, but when I came out during college it threw them for a loop. They sent me to a reparative psychotherapist when I was living in California because it was just so out of their frame of reference.”
Margaret’s concert shows, particularly the boisterous, bold, self-loving “I’m the One that I Want,” hit Bryan like a ton of bricks.
“Because it was so raw, honest, accepting, loving and compassionate,” he explains. “She talked about feeling isolated and oppressed, and compelled to conform or fit in to other people’s standards. And in a way that acknowledged the pain I was feeling.”
Margaret Cho’s life experience is not dissimilar to Bryan’s in that she was initially mistreated and misunderstood — in this case, by the entertainment industry. She started in stand-up at age 16, and after on the road developing her act, she earned a slot in ABC primetime on her own show.
“It was, for the first time in my life, acceptance,” Cho recounted in her show. “I’ve never found that anywhere. I felt real. I felt alive. I felt for the first time in my life I was not invisible. It was a glorious feeling. It was a thousand champagne corks popping.”
The euphoria of being a “working actress” soon turned, though, when she got a call from the ABC show runner expressing concern over her weighty “full face.” While her show was the first ever to feature an Asian-American family on TV, she was deemed too heavy by the network and was put on an aggressive weight-loss and exercise plan.
“I was so scared,” she recounted. “I lost 30 pounds in two weeks, and my kidneys collapsed. It happened on the set of the show — I guess the network decided that my face could fit on the screen and they wouldn’t have to letterbox it.”
“That is so Mu Lan,” she quipped.
In his superlative-laden review of Margaret’s show, The New York Times’ Stephen Holden noted her rock-bottom moment might have been when ABC hired “a special consultant to instruct Ms. Cho on how to seem ‘more Asian.’
“Cho’s experiences in mainstream show business are a chilling lesson in ethnic stereotyping,” he wrote.
Bryan’s connection to the material, though, was more about her moxie and survival.
“It resonated for me because it validated the pain that I was feeling,” he says. “She used her sense of humor, sass, sense of power and personal human value to say, ‘You know what? Fuck everybody else. I am going to be me because that’s really all I can do. And I am okay.’
“I just think that message comes through her comedy, and the way she handles herself as an activist,” he adds. “It deeply affects public discourse, particularly regarding sexual orientation.”
The Comfort of Strangers
At first I didn’t think I could help Bryan connect with Margaret — but, as I came to learn, don’t ever discount the goodness of people, and the ways in which we support each other.
I had been talking to the fabulous Trey Toler, of Vortex Comedy in Midtown, trying to notch a night on Margaret’s always-frenzied schedule for a charity project.
Between touring, “Diva” and other appearances, Margaret’s time was limited to say the least. Even so, I decided to put word out there for Bryan, thinking that if nothing came of it, well, at least I put it up to the universe as an example of what’s possible.
I blasted out other e-mails to Marshall Chiles and Margaret’s manager, and within a week, I received an e-mail from Trey asking to get hold of Bryan — and a meeting was afoot.
Margaret appeared at Bryan’s doorstep earlier this year wearing snakeskin leggings and referee socks; he was floored by how everyday and down-to-earth she was.
“She looked so cute, had funky glasses on and just looked like… Margaret,” he says. “And I think that’s the other part of her that I think is really powerful: she just embraces her ordinariness. She does fashion and can be really fabulous, but it’s just her own style and her own kind of way of being in the world.”
They chatted about life, body image and — because chemo often makes patients constipated — made a promise to have joint colonics in the future. “We’ll get them together,” she said.
“Even if she is selling a product, it’s rooted in her desire for connection and community, and tending to the gay community in particular,” Bryan says. “And I think her reaching out, lending strength and time, made me feel loved and connected and part of this community.”
Bryan’s cancer didn’t respond to the first few rounds of treatment. But the most recent chemo — the strongest version to-date — has, in fact, shown significant signs of working.
Up next is a stem-cell transplant from his brother, where, he says, they “rip out my old, defective immune system and replace it with my brother’s. It’s very sci-fi. It’s supposed to bring me to cure though, so this is good news.”
Bryan could also face some radiation therapy to “cyber knife” any remaining malignant cells.
Through all of those treatments and trips to the hospital, Bryan uses Margaret’s and his friends’ inspiration to remain grounded and optimistic. As long as he keeps laughing, and his will stays strong, he vows to make this promise a reality:
“I’m scared but I have great support around me,” he says. “And I’m going to kick cancer’s ass.”
Top photo: Margaret Cho and Bryan Raybon (courtesy photo)