BJ Colangelo’s Horror Movie Guide to Overcoming Pancreatic Cancer

Happy November, Icons of Fright readers!  As you all recover from the Breast Cancer Awareness pink washed items at your local grocery store fighting with the Halloween themed goodies, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to paint the world purple for Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month.  Boasting a 4% survival rate after five years, Pancreatic Cancer has quickly become one of the deadliest cancers in existence and is posed to be the most deadly cancer in just a few years.  For those that are unaware, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 23, which is extremely rare.  I’m one of the youngest people on record to be diagnosed with the disease, and more importantly, one of the youngest people on record to beat it.  As of right now, I’m 24 and have been in remission for almost 9 months.  They won’t consider me out of the woods for another four years or so, but I’m a hell of a lot luckier than most.  While I still endure serious complications from surgery (they removed organs, of course some stuff is going to be screwy) I don’t have a tennis-ball sized  tumor trying to kill me.  Over at my personal site, Day of the Woman: a blog for the feminine side of fear, I wrote an article called “How Can You Watch Horror When You’re Dying?” in regards to the reasons behind watching horror films during tragic life experiences.  The article was therapeutic to say the least, but the horror I watched during this time was chosen for specific reasons.  When you’re bed-ridden for weeks at a time, there’s not much to do other than develop an intimate relationship with your Netflix and film collections.  In honor of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month, here’s my horror movie guide to overcoming that ass-faced disease.


THE RUINS: When I showed up at the emergency room complaining of chest and abdominal pains (which would later prove to be completely unrelated but life-saving) I was stuck in a room separated by a 2-ply curtain and armed with one of the poorest quality televisions in existence.  I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure the television was older than my parents.  Anyway, all of the nurses knew of the possibility that the mass they found on my pancreas was cancer, but no one would tell me.  They couldn’t.  A biopsy hadn’t been done and they could have gotten in huge trouble for even whispering the C word at me.  However, I could hear them all mumbling while side eyeing me with furrowed brows and exasperated expressions.  I couldn’t handle it, so I turned on SyFy and drowned them out.  Fortunate enough for me, THE RUINS was on.  I hadn’t seen the film since it came out (when I was a senior in high school) but it was everything I needed at the time.  Predatory vines were overtaking these kids and the mere exposure to these vines was going to lead to their demise.  I craved this schadenfreude.  Everyone was afraid to come near me out of fear they’d upset me or say something wrong, and I was left alone with a very sleepy significant other and frantic phone calls from my parents in another time zone.  THE RUINS not only kept my attention, but allowed me to release some of that fear and anxiety in the form of watching other people die.  Call it cruel, but seeing these kids being attacked by something out of their control is exactly what I needed.


JAWS: My parents are responsible for my taste in cinema, and while my dad is classics/westerns/mob films/obscene comedies and my mom is horror/thriller/true crime/sci-fi, they both agree that JAWS is one of the best films ever made.  The day after my surgery, I could barely move or respond to anyone.  The pain medication I was being pumped with turned me into a drunk toddler and if I wasn’t sleeping, I was saying weird shit or drooling on myself.  The first thing I can consciously remember (outside of the fact my surgeon listened to Bruno Mars during the procedure) was turning on AMC and watching JAWS with my parents.  Here’s the thing about my mom and dad, my mom is always the cool and collected one, while my dad (who is no joke, the poor man’s Joe Pesci) wears his heart on his sleeve.  They could barely look at me without crying but when JAWS was on, we all had something we were familiar with that we could use to distract us.  My parents told me their stories about the first time they saw the film and being terrified to go in the water, despite living on the beaches of Lake Michigan…not an ocean. Strangely enough, the second time I was hospitalized AMC was playing JAWS II, which I found to be a little poetic.  The second time in the hospital wasn’t nearly as scary and while it was important, it was less scary and more annoying…much like JAWS II.


When I was finally home from the hospital and left to my own devices, I started out with my favorite “feel-good” horror films.  First on deck was FRIGHT NIGHT. Surgery absolutely KILLED my self-esteem, my self-worth, and any sense of desirability or confidence I once had.  It’s really hard to think you’re a smokin’ hot babe when you’ve got staples down your stomach and a tube hanging out of your side collecting gross bodily fluids for all the world to see.  Not to mention, I wasn’t allowed to freakin’ shower without wearing a poncho.  So, yeah. I was super attractive.  However, FRIGHT NIGHT is my “feelin’ sexy” movie.  Chris Sarandon’s Jerry Dandridge always makes me smile like a 7th grader at a school dance and Charley Brewster’s mom always makes me laugh like an idiot.  Laughing may have been excruciatingly painful, but it was so worth it.

VIDEODROME wasn’t necessarily a “feel-good” horror film for me, but it is now.  When I had a bunch of tubes and stables and goo oozing out of my stomach, all I wanted was to know that it could have been worse.  Thanks to Cronenberg, I had visual proof that it could have been way, way worse.  I’ll take a cancer surgery over James Woods’ stomach any day.


When Icons of Fright posted about our favorite horror movie scores, I waxed poetic about LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.  The film arguably saved my life when I struggled with depression, and it more than came in handy when I was facing death.  The beautifully haunting score, the impeccable cinematography (save for CGI cats), and the heartbreaking thirst for understanding put me at ease.  I probably watched the film at least once a day when I was stuck in bed.  It was my 2:30 pick me up.  Eli was just trying to survive, by any means necessary.  So was I.  It’s weird the things you discover you have in common with horror film characters once your life is completely overhauled.

I also watched every single episode of BOB’S BURGERS and was blessed by Based God with the glory of Jessie’s Caffeine Pill addiction episode on a re-run of SAVED BY THE BELL.  I was laying in a hospital bed when I heard the theme song and groggily said “I’m so excited…I’m so excited…I’m so…scared!” and burst into tears.  Then, by the miracle of the universe, that was the episode that was on.  I’ve never snapped to attention quicker in my life.  It’s not horror, but I thought you all should know.  All the drugs they put me on had me convinced that I was predicting the future.  I watched a shit load of RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE reruns too, but that’s also not horror.


BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER is one of my ultimate feel-good movies paired with the unofficial BJC approved trilogy of TEEN WITCH, DON’T TELL MOM THE BABYSITTER’S DEAD, and the Disney Channel original movie WISH UPON A STAR.  While none of these are really “horror” movies, they’re all teen films with supernatural/death elements that are impossible not to love.  Singing the songs and quoting the one-liners helped transport me back to days when I wasn’t worrying about whether or not my meds were going to put me into such a deep sleep I wouldn’t wake up.  The melodramatic death of Paul Reubens in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER is a thing of beauty, and quickly became how I explained my pain to anyone that asked how I was feeling.  Some of my best memories as a tween was watching WISH UPON A STAR (starring a young Danielle Harris).  The two sisters pull a “Freaky Friday” body switch and I kept thinking how badly I wanted to live inside someone else’s body for a little while.


I couldn’t get out of bed, so I surely wasn’t seeing anything new, but the KILLER POV podcast always kept me up to date.  I normally look forward to their Friday show, but never as much as I did when I was sick.  I couldn’t wait to hear whether or not the films I’d been jazzed about were worth it and the playful banter between Rebekah, Elric, and Rob made me feel like I was in a room with a bunch of friends, not stuck in bed trying to figure out how I was going to sit up without screaming in pain so I could get up and take a piss.  It was nice to listen to people talk about anything other than health, death, feelings, pain management, or showering habits.  I don’t care how many times Elric mentioned POSSESSION, I looked forward to a life of familiarity and KILLER POV helped me get there.


YOU’RE NEXT and CHEAP THRILLS were two of my favorite films of 2013, and two films with some gross-out moments that make me scream “OOOOOH!” at the screen no matter how many times I’ve seen them.  I must have watched them both at least 5 times a piece during recovery.  There was something comforting about watching actors on screen that were simultaneously checking up on my recovery on Twitter.  It’s like being a make-a-wish kid, but with a much better outcome.  Not to mention, I’d rather watch Pat Healy trek through hell than go through it myself.  Again, there’s that pesky schadenfreude.

My nurse in the hospital (WHAT’S UP, NURSE NATALIE?!) was the coolest nurse ever. To thank her for her treatment, I bought her a copy of NURSE 3D.  Whenever my doctors/nurses came to talk to me, they were dealing with some really serious circumstances.  There wasn’t much laughter or playfulness.  My first hospital stay had me on a floor where everyone around me was 40+ years my senior.  The nurses and doctors all wanted me because I was the only one that could wipe their own ass, but most of them quickly grew tired of my antics.  I read Fangoria magazine and made inappropriate jokes about just about everything.  Nurse Natalie thought it was great and we shared a common love of film and indie music.  So, I bought her the campiest film about nurses, ever.  Anyone that takes NURSE 3D seriously is silly, just like any of the nurses that thought I wasn’t being sarcastic when I said “Imma use my IV as a lasso and seduce the hot guy that works in the hospital cafeteria.”


Without a doubt, HOLLISTON was probably my biggest saving grace.  The TV series gave me a little bit of everything I needed. Gore, humor, slapstick, inappropriate situations, horror references, and sprinkled with real-life situations helped me feel so much more normal.  HOLLISTON reminds me a lot of my real life struggles, and it gave me the perfect world to escape to when I was feeling at my worst. I’ve had awkward meet-ups with exes (and their new flames) that I still loved, I’ve felt the pressure to “look” a certain way at a horror convention, I’ve had to deal with psychotic people assisting me on film sets, and I’ve been completely heartbroken trying to get over someone.  HOLLISTON reminded me that there are so many other wonderful (and awful) things about existence, and that one event doesn’t have to define everything.  Or…if you want, it can be the inspiration for everything that you do.  The sage advice of Oderus Urungus became more important than ever before, because sometimes all you really need in life is for someone to scoop you up a heaping helping of tough love and brutal honesty.  I didn’t have anyone in my life doing that, but I got that from HOLLISTON.  I rewatched Seasons 1 & 2 twice throughout my recovery, and it was a great way to transition back into real life. In Market Basket we trust.  (RIP FEARnet. RIP Dave Brockie)

Pancreatic cancer is a terrifying disease, but horror definitely helped suck out some of the fear factor.  I’m still looking at possibly having more procedures just to ensure that my cancer has died and stays dead, so there’s a chance I’ll be hospitalized again in the future.  Luckily for me, if that happens, I know exactly how to get through it.

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One Response to “BJ Colangelo’s Horror Movie Guide to Overcoming Pancreatic Cancer”
  1. Alex Krajci says:

    1975’s Jaws Is One Of My Favorite Films.

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