“When I first went to the radiologist,” says Phil Drucker, “he told me, ‘Other than the cancer, you’re a really healthy guy.’ I’ve been a vegetarian, haven’t smoked since I was 22, and hardly ever drink. I kept thinking, ‘This just isn’t possible.’”
Drucker, 60 and a La Quinta resident for the past eight years, was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. The eldest of three, his parents were children of immigrant parents.
“My mom’s biggest impression on me was not what she said, but rather what she did,” says Drucker. “When I was in elementary school, there was a teacher’s strike. Most people backed the teachers, but my mom didn’t. She put on her miniskirt and go-go boots, and wrote a sign: ‘I pay my taxes. Why aren’t my kids in school?’ She taught me that when you think you’re right, all you need is an army of one.
“My dad was very old-school European. He worked for the Department of Water and Power for 38 years, a union guy. He was a complex person, a deep thinker who kept to himself and didn’t talk much. The main thing I remember is that our house was full of books. He loved books—never threw one away.
“My parents hadn’t gone to college, so it’s kind of funny that when I got a scholarship to college, my dad said, ‘This college thing is really great, but did you ever consider going into the Air Force for 10 years and retiring with a pension and then going to college?’ I figured if I didn’t do (college) then, I never would.”
Drucker did take the scholarship and went to Cal State Northridge for a year. He later attended Santa Monica City College for a year before going to UCLA for a degree in fine arts.
“Music had been in my family,” Drucker says. “My sister played piano, and my brother took up the saxophone. I learned the clarinet in junior high school, because my parents didn’t want to pay for a new instrument, and my dad had an old one he had played.”
At age 16, Drucker took up the guitar and later played in various bands. “It was in the 1980s,” he recalls, “in the post-punk scene. Through my 20s, I got paid for playing, and got to tour to Europe twice along with all over the U.S. and Canada.
“When I stopped playing music, I knew I needed a ‘real job.’ I had worked in a letterpress company while I was in school, and went back into that world. I kept finding myself as the person who was the liaison to lawyers, handling things like contracts and copyrights. A lawyer I worked with once said to me, ‘Do you know the difference between what you do and what I do? About $150,000 a year!’”
At age 34, Drucker decided to go back to school. At that time, entry into law school at the University of La Verne required a personal interview in addition to taking the Law School Admissions Test. “When I met for the interview, the admissions director said he’d been doing his job for 20 years and had never had someone come in with a degree in fine arts. But he said he found me interesting, so I got admitted.
“Because of my undergrad degree, I knew about music, painting, graphics, copyrights—and it interested me how the law around those things had materialized over the years. I hadn’t thought about the fact that copyright and patents are covered in the Constitution, and that it’s actually a limitation on First Amendment rights.”
Drucker graduated law school at 36, and at 40, he passed the bar on his first try.
“It’s kind of funny,” he says, “that my brother also became a lawyer. He’s in PI (personal injury), and I’m in IP (intellectual property).” In addition to his practice, Drucker became an expert on constitutional law, including teaching and public speaking.
What should people know?
“First, if you’re ever stopped by the police, be nice. They have a gun, and you don’t,” he says. “Second, don’t mess with immigration agents at the airport. They can throw you into a dark room for up to 72 hours.
“The Constitution doesn’t really grant you rights; a piece of paper can’t give you rights. What makes us unique is we are the only nation conceived on the concept of ‘natural rights,’ born with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The piece of paper lays out what the government CAN’T do, and is only as good as those using it.”
After a life of eating healthy and working out regularly, Drucker last year was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer.
“I had never been in a hospital before. I even still have my tonsils,” he says. “I didn’t go to the doctor routinely, but my stomach was bothering me, so I went in and had a blood test. The doctor called me the next day and said I had to come back immediately. I had another blood test, and it turned out my hemoglobin level was way lower than it should have been. The doc said I shouldn’t even have driven myself over. He said by law, he couldn’t let me leave, and that if I walked out, he’d have to drag me back. I ended up in a wheelchair taken to the hospital, and they said I’d have to stay at least 48 hours. They’d have to give me blood to try to get my count to an acceptable level.
“It finally dawned on me to ask, ‘I don’t have cancer, do I?’” he says. “It turned out I did, but it hadn’t metastasized. The doctor said in six more months, that wouldn’t have been the case.
“I had surgery and they found five nodes infected, so I had to have chemotherapy—pills at first, and then infusions—and I had 28 radiation treatments. It feels like they take you to the brink of death’s doorstep, and then your body kicks in, and they encourage it to heal. It was really scary. I got depressed and felt so fatigued, but I kept up my teaching schedule through that semester.
“The infusions are done in a large room with lots of other people, and I realized one day, looking at everybody, all hooked up to the same machines, that it didn’t matter who we were—we all wanted the same thing: to get better. That’s what binds me to all other cancer survivors for the rest of my life. It confirmed what I’ve always believed: We are all one.
“Most people take their dog to the vet more than they routinely go to the doctor. It’s a mistake. The fact that I ate vegan and worked out was probably the only reason they were able to get the cancer in time. They tell you to think positively, but you think, ‘If this could happen to me, what else can happen?’ You experience vulnerability, helplessness, a sense of futility. I never thought about giving up, although there were very dark days.
“I’ve gotten into mindfulness, living in the moment. I know life isn’t about the past or the future; we can’t change them anyway. They tell you to decide if you want to share your experience, and I’m willing to help anybody going through what I did.
“Whatever is going on in life, you have to find the gems in the mud. That’s what keeps me going.”
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.