On doing comedy about having cancer

07.15.11

First appeared in the March/April 2011 edition of The Lifted Brow.

The evening of November 24, 2007 was what for me would have to be described as  a bittersweet one. See, on the one hand, I got to see John Howard be finally and comprehensively evicted from power after eleven years as the Prime Minister of Australia. But, on the other hand, an x-ray I had some fifteen minutes after he conceded defeat showed a seven centimetre tumour growing on the surface of my right lung. So, that wasn’t quite as good. An hour or so later, as I scaled back from the abyss over which I had been teetering, a close friend rang me and led off with the line “Isn’t this amazing?!” There was a pause. “Well, not really,” I replied.

Within a week I had moved home to Perth, commenced treatment, and entered the Raw Comedy competition. What can I say? Some saw a life-threatening illness, I saw a career opportunity. As I told my friends, what kind of heartless monster of a comedy judge was going to deny the bald twenty-two-year-old doing cancer material? And hey, next thing you know I was in the State Final.

This moderate success led, as it does, to my doing a post-treatment solo show at the 2009 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, entitled “Luke’s Got Cancer”. It was funnier than it sounds. The poster had a photo of me, bald, against a shadowy blood red background, pointing at myself in disbelief as if to say “Who, me?” It was rather striking. Of course, it was also taken nine months after I had ceased chemotherapy, so I may or may not have actually shaved my head again. So that I could look sicker. I think that was definitely the point at which my mother began to question my life choices.

Developing fifty minutes of material about cancer is a heavy ask, but I was actually in the convenient position of having already had cancer once—a bone tumour discovered growing out the back of my left knee when I was eleven. First at eleven, second at twenty-two. At thirty-three, I plan on exploding at a party of friends and loved ones. Just to really drive the point home. But I’ve always said, in retrospect, that getting cancer at the age of eleven was the ideal time to be dealing with such a profound illness: old enough to understand what was going on, but young enough not to have a fully developed sense of my mortality. Also, I got an N64. Which perhaps didn’t entirely counteract the cavalcade of horrors that was to ensue, but in the economic reckonings of the eleven-year-old mind, it seemed like a pretty fair trade. “You mean I get an N64 and I get to stay home all year to play it? This is the best day of my life! Wait, why does everybody look so serious?”

One of the best things about getting cancer as an eleven-year-old, though—because there’s just so many to choose from—is that adults completely lose the capacity to interact with you. Cancer, as a concept, exists almost entirely within the purview of the adult mind. It affects adults, it is treated by adults, it is discussed by adults and it kills adults. But throw a child into this conceptual equation and suddenly the mechanisms of address are upended. I’m a child, sure, but I’m a child who conceivably could die. My school, for instance, didn’t really know what to do, and so invented an award specifically for me: the Mary Ward Award. Named after a sixteenth-century nun, it was supposedly given to the child that best emblematised the qualities of Mary Ward: compassion, sincerity, justice. Cancer. But I was eleven. I was still struggling to get into pants in the morning without falling over. The only justice I believed in could probably best be described as extreme, and tended to be expressed through video games that allowed you to decapitate aliens with a chainsaw. Just as Mary Ward would have wanted. With that said, and to its credit, the school did continue to give the award out in later years, but to students that had achieved more than the ability to essentially vomit on command.

The school was great about it, though, and the staff went out of their way to help me keep up and make sure I wouldn’t have to repeat a year. But I get the feeling that, somewhere along the line, the memo didn’t make it to every teacher. I’d just started treatment and my hair had begun to fall out, and so we’d decided to shave it all off to ensure that the relentless shedding wasn’t quite so messy. So there I was, walking across the yard one lunchtime, still in reasonable health, when Mr Richie, the slightly smarmy chemistry teacher, beckoned me over. There was triumph in his eyes and a detention in his voice as he looked down at me and asked if I had permission to have my hair that short.

“I have cancer!” I rejoined brightly.

This was followed by a pause of quite incredible duration. Although I didn’t fully understand it at the time, I think I could see in Mr Richie’s eyes some hint of the horror that must have been unfolding within. A teeming vision of outraged parents and angry local headlines, a career-destroying Today Tonight exposé and his spurning by greater society, the eventual abandonment by all who loved him and then a quiet death in a puddle of whiskey down at the local park. It was grim viewing. And so, Mr Richie, seeing all this unfold before him—and in the face of what had now become six seconds of strained silence—plucked, like Excalibur from the stone, the one phrase that would fix it all:

“Well,” he said. “Good luck with that.”

*

It might sound strange, but I’ve never been more grateful for having had cancer than when I got it for the second time. The 1997 affair was like my dry run, the trial show. Now we were gearing up for the main event and I was fully girded. It would be awful and it would be hard, but I knew everything that was in store for me. Or at least I thought I did. It turned out there had been quite remarkable advances in the methods used for treating cancer during the last eleven years. Where once I’d been in hospital for three to five days at a time, bedridden and being pumped as full of chemotherapy as was feasible without actually killing me, now I popped in for a three hour session on a Tuesday afternoon and went to the pub at night. Where once I’d vomited in such profusion that the pie-eating scene from Stand By Me seemed like a fair representation of day-to-day life, now I vomited twice across the entire duration of my treatment, and, to be fair, both of those times were due to excess alcohol consumption.

This unexpectedly breezy state of affairs prompted my father, a doctor, to say, “Well, I guess at this point you’re only as sick as you feel.” A wonderful policy which I treated as carte blanche to research a hypothetical paper entitled “How to beat cancer through heavy boozing and recreational drug use”. Not that I think this is the universal experience of being treated for cancer in the modern age, but I skipped through the adjuvant (i.e. chemotherapy/radiotherapy) portion of my treatment with reckless abandon. Hell, there were even points when I found myself exaggerating side-effects just so that my oncologist still felt like our weekly appointments were serving some purpose.

But one thing I did have more of at twenty-two than eleven was sperm. And with chemotherapy generally working by annihilating the fastest replicating cells in the body, one’s sperm tends to stand in the frontline of the assault. As such, it was recommended that I freeze a sample of my sperm, just to ensure that the grade-A genetic stock that had delivered two separate tumours in twenty-two years could be passed onto future generations. If you’re looking for an experience that will suck away the last of the already-fragile romance of male masturbation, then jizzing in a cup could be for you. It starts badly enough because you have to have a conversation with your mother that loosely references masturbation.

“Lukey, I’ve booked the appointment.”

“What appointment?”

“You know. The appointment. Where you produce a sample of yourself.”

“Oh.”

A beat.

“I bet you’re looking forward to that.”

No more than I’m looking forward to this conversation being over. But once you actually get in there it becomes a whole lot stranger. You find yourself at the back of a very down at heel wing of the hospital, seated in a lab pulled straight from a 1960s B-grade sci-fi movie, fielding questions from a pair of dorky uncle types who make a point of constantly referring to your sperm as “the sample” and sniggering slightly every time they say it. You are then given a tiny, tiny cup, and get ushered into the masturbatorium next door, which is, essentially, a glorified disabled toilet. There’s acres of space, and to your left a table with a bizarre set of eighties porn, a toilet next to that, and then in one corner a chair, done up in that ever-so-erotic, puce-coloured hospital pleather, and, in the other corner, a weird semi-recliner that is essentially a puce-coloured back, laid at a forty-five degree angle, with no seat and two arm-rests. Which really invites the question: who exactly is masturbating in this position? Had the hospital received complaints about the lack of seatless recliners? Are there folk out there who simply can’t ejaculate unless they’re forming an exact triangle with the floor and the wall?

But not for me: I went freestanding. Hunched over 1983’s Playmate of the Month, Jessica, who reclines on a faux-revival chaise lounge like some kind of permed, well-to-do sea lion, and then, here we go, no, wait… Huzzah! I have jizzed in that cup. So you leave the masturbatorium and have to take your “sample” back in to the two dorky uncles, who beam like they’re expecting you to compliment their public hospital themed self-love dungeon, and with pre-snigger half-smiles ask if everything went OK. OK meaning catching over 60% of the sample in your tiny cup. Which, I would wager, if one were to use the seatless recliner, could be a bit of a task. And then I go home, sufficiently dejected, and Mum looks up at me and goes “How was it?” You know what, Mum? Weird.

*

However: there’s no disputing that this whole process was markedly easier than it had any right to be. Nine weeks of symptomless chemotherapy, six weeks of mostly symptomless radiotherapy and then it was surgery time. Surgery: Even the word sounds of gross violation and bodily degradations. By this time, though, with things as easy as they were, I had assumed the operation would unfold in much the same way as the board game, “Operation”, in that they’d just cut a perfectly tumour-shaped hole in my chest and try to pluck it out without touching the sides.

And that is how I wandered into the appointment with my surgeon—expecting a tidy explanation, the prompt removal of the tumour, and then my happy return to Melbourne, ready to pretend this dismal fever dream had never, ever happened. So I sat down in his office, my parents on either side, and looked at him, and he… looked like he didn’t quite know how to start speaking. And then he explained that, because of the size of the tumour and its proximity to the nerves controlling my arm, there was no way of removing it without also removing my arm and shoulder.

Fuck.

At this point in my festival show, I would play a twenty-second YouTube video of a laughing four-year-old boy being chased through a field by a horde of dachshund puppies.  It’s the most satisfying thing I have ever done on stage, up to and including having to act out producing a sperm sample in front of a paying audience.

Fortunately, I had, the day before this appointment, received the results of a PET scan which had shown a total lack of metabolic activity in my tumour. That is, the tumour appeared to be, for all intents and purposes, dead. This is an uncommon result at the best of times, more so for a miscellaneous sarcoma whose preferred treatment regime had already been taken off the table due to my prior medical history. But there we were, with an almost unheard-of recurrence matched with an almost unheard-of response to secondary treatment.

While not a particularly easy choice, I decided that the amputation of my right arm and shoulder was not a particularly attractive course of action at this point in my life, especially when facing up to the possibility that the tumour might already be dead and its removal in such savage fashion unnecessary.

From the moment I was diagnosed, amputation was probably always going to be the recommended surgical option, but I think how I got through a lot of this time, and the way in which a lot of people get through their cancer treatment, was by becoming an expert in tactical ignorance. I never asked questions about long term prospects or statistical outcomes because I knew that whatever answers I might be given could do little except increase my anxiety. After all, what does knowing there’s a 60% survival rate for your cancer tell you except for the fact there’s a 40% chance you will die? Such are the mathematics of the cancer-stricken mind. If I’d known amputation was what I had to look forward to at the end of my treatment, no matter how successful, the entire experience would have become an almost unbearable affair, a desperately sad four-month farewell to my right arm, which, I daresay, is my favourite of all the limbs. Spare a thought too for my father, who, being a doctor, saw my initial x-ray and knew the likely surgical outcome immediately, but kept it secret from me and Mum because he knew that we were safer without the knowledge.

At a certain level of remove, I understood the situation’s grimness. But to be honest, it had never crossed my mind that anything would actually, seriously go wrong in all of this. This was but a temporary diversion in my life, and once it was done everything would simply go back to normal. Right? In the end, perhaps I wasn’t so far distant from that eleven-year-old version of myself, quietly secure in the knowledge that everything was going to be OK, if only because there was no other possible way it could be.

*

Which leaves me in a bit of a medical no man’s land, really. As it stands, it’s been two and a half years since I finished treatment, almost three since any activity was last seen in my tumour. These wonderful-to-write figures notwithstanding, the particularities of my case mean I probably couldn’t pay a doctor to use the word “remission” in my presence. At one point my oncologist referred to me as a “data free zone”. I had two secondaries removed from my lower left lung in 2009, but besides being a pretty dire hospital experience, it was a minor blip on the radar. And apart from that I live my life doing the post-cancer shuffle, moving from check-up to check-up as needed and in the meantime trying to roll on as if nothing ever happened. Despite everything, I’m just a regular guy, with a gammy knee, a bung shoulder and a cup full of dreams.

Obviously cancer is something that is quite shit. And irrevocable, too. But it’s the same with everything bad that happens in your life: it only has the value that you choose to assign it. I was reading an article the other day which said that two thirds of people who are diagnosed with cancer say they actually get something positive from their experience. I figure, for one thing, that I’ve been given the nuclear codes of cultural reviewing. Whether it’s cinema, theatre, music or literature, I will forever have the line at my disposal “That was the worst thing that I have ever been through. And I’ve had cancer. Twice.”

In the end, I guess I turn my cancer into comic spectacle because everyone else focuses on its gravity, and that’s the last thing I ever wanted to do. Hell, I think that’s the last thing anyone with cancer wants to do. We think about our own mortality enough without everybody else getting in on the action. So, instead, I choose to smear its absurd nature across all those who come to watch. If everything is spoken, my logic runs, then it obliterates the corners of darkness in which doubt and confusion multiply, and allows me to continue being me, rather than becoming me with cancer. Because, when it comes down to it, cancer isn’t an idea, or a journey, or the realm of heroes. It’s just a thing that people go through, and no more, or less, than that.