Deep in the Black Rock Desert—and arguably even deeper into the Burning Man experience—a hardy crew of cancer patients are burying their diagnoses in the dust.
The sun is beating down over one of the most inhospitable places on the planet and I can’t remember the last time I slept.
I’m standing beneath a 23-meter-high effigy, listening to a woman named Cinemagirl share her experience of surviving cancer. Her eyes are watering. “I’m not crying because I’m sad,” she says. “I’m crying because of all the love I’ve been given.”
A small crowd begins to walk solemnly towards the Temple, Burning Man’s spiritual focal point where participants go to memorialize the dead. In my two years at the 75,000-person ‘social experiment’ on a dried-out lakebed in Nevada, I’d avoided the Temple—I always felt it was too much of a bummer. But this time is different.
I jog up to meet a casually-dressed man. His name is Bryan Monahan, he has pancreatic cancer, and several weeks ago his doctor said he has five to 12 months to live. He’d dreamed of coming to Burning Man for 16 years, but had never been able to make it. Two weeks before the 2018 event, a complete stranger said he had a free ticket with his name on it.
The group stops and a crowd starts to form around Monahan and a man known as Slim, aka Aaron Muszalski. Slim is wearing a black cowboy hat and punk clothes which harken back to a time when Burning Man was more fire and metal than Instagram influencers and Playa Tech.
A few weeks earlier, I’d seen a Facebook post from Slim about launching a program called Burning Wish which grants free—virtually unattainable—tickets worth $425 to $1200 for cancer patients and caregivers.
“Once, I literally drove directly back from Burning Man to the hospital for my next infusion. I was still so covered in dust that I was worried they’d turn me away.”
Why would someone who has cancer go to Burning Man? I mean, it’s not the safest place in the world: Thousands of high and drunk people running around, flamethrowers, extreme heat and freezing cold, to name just a few of the risks.
“I just needed the vessel and I was just like ‘fuck it, I’m going,” Bryan tells Slim, who’d made his Burning Man dream happen, as the two share a teary embrace. “So fucking glad to meet you,” Slim responds.
Slim admits that Burning Man is dangerous, and he’d warned all first-time participants of its inherent dangers.
As a matter of fact, a 19-year-old cancer patient flew off her scooter and got two stitches for a gash in her chin. But the danger is “part of the magic”, Slim explains. “More is possible here because there’s more freedom here. And with that freedom comes more danger.”
In 2016, Slim was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Thinking it might be his last Burn (he’d been to 22 straight), he created a schedule that allowed him to attend as much of it as he could. “We cut it really close,” Slim says. “Once, I literally drove directly back from Burning Man to the hospital for my next infusion. I was still so covered in dust that I was worried they’d turn me away.”
While physically draining, Slim says Burning Man gave him the strength to complete his treatment: “Coming out here, connecting with my burner family, and feeling the incredible love and support this community has to offer was priceless. Lifesaving.”
With Slim’s plans to quit Burning Man tossed, a thought struck him: What if he could offer other cancer patients a similar experience?
Slim launched Burning Wish several weeks before the 2018 event and donations started to pour in immediately. Anonymous donors provided 13 tickets to cancer patients aged 19 to 63 and their caregivers as well as $8,000 for expenses. Someone even gave a gorgeous 11-meter trailer for a lung cancer patient who can’t handle the harsh alkali dust. As they say, ”the playa provides.”
“The thing cancer taught me is your life can change in just one phone call. We’re always worrying about tomorrow, working for tomorrow, planning for tomorrow and saving for tomorrow. Truth be told, that tomorrow might never come, so you’ve got to be in the present.”
As we’re chatting, Slim peers over at the group of cancer survivors at the Temple. “I mean look at them all,” he says. “They’re all so fucking happy. They’re all going to Burning Man.”
A few feet away, another crowd had formed around Carolyn Monroe, an 81-year-old first-time Burner from the San Fernando Valley who beamed an unapologetic zest for life that rivals anyone a fraction of her age.
Carolyn’s hair is painted bright blue and colorful spiked rings decorate her fingers. She’s also a cancer patient who was gifted a ticket from the Burning Man community, though not from Slim’s program. Carolyn postponed her last chemotherapy appointment when her son got her a ticket from his campmates. “I didn’t even know that much about Burning Man,” says Carolyn. “They said it’s crazy. And I said, ‘Fine—I’m in.’”
At Burning Man, Carolyn rides around on a tricycle and on top of a dragon ‘art car’ while wearing a brass steampunk mask. After it’s all over, she says she’ll wear some of the gifts she received to her final chemo appointment.
A couple of days later, I grab my scarf and goggles and hop on my bike—it takes mere seconds before I’m seduced to stop. Should I go eat that steak barbecue? Should I be slurping on a snow cone? Do I have time to hit the beard spa? I’m on my way to meet Gordon Farber, a Burning Wish participant who had come all the way from South Africa and was gifted a ticket just five days before the event.
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Gordon, 49, has recently gone into remission from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and has been spending his Burn partying, day and night, with a protective mask on. Farber’s brother, Rowan—who proposed to his girlfriend on a whim with a toy ring last night—recalls how hard it was for the whole family when Gordon was going through chemo. Yet here he was, letting loose and dancing alongside the DJs.
“The thing cancer taught me is your life can change in just one phone call,” Gordon says. “We’re always worrying about tomorrow, working for tomorrow, planning for tomorrow and saving for tomorrow. Truth be told, that tomorrow might never come, so you’ve got to be in the present.”
On Saturday, the day the Man burns, I meet Harout Yerganian, an energetic 37-year-old with a wide smile, at his camp. Someone offers him a cigarette. “No, I just beat cancer,” he says.
“…at that moment I just realized, if not now, my time will come. And when it does, I don’t want to have any fucking regrets.”
Harout decided this week that after going into remission from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in March, he no longer wants to get tested. “I think I’m just going to live my life every day as if it’s my last,” he says, “That way, when the cancer comes back, I’ll have lived my life fully.”
He came to that conclusion after seeing a silhouette biking in the ‘deep playa.’ “All you see is just one soul easily going into the dust,” he says. “And at that moment I just realized, if not now, my time will come. And when it does, I don’t want to have any fucking regrets.”
Now, Harout plans to save up so he can help other people experience what he did.
As I sit with Harout and tens of thousands of others in the middle of nowhere in front of the Man, with nine days of hedonism, mind-blowing art, and thousands of hugs in the rearview, I couldn’t tell which was more powerful: The blazing inferno bursting from the 23-meter-high Man, or the childlike joy beaming from the survivor beside me.
Joel Balsam is a freelance journalist and nomad. His work has been published in Time, National Geographic Traveler, The Guardian, Vice and Lonely Planet.