Cancer isn’t funny, but it’s definitely good for a laugh. Anyone who’s heard Tig Notaro’s famous comedy set performed in shock just after her diagnosis will know there’s no reason that the subject can’t handle comedy. It’s actually most likely the best way to handle it, rather than sitting in grim contemplation. When Luke Ryan survived cancer twice by his early 20s he had the same response. He wrote a comedy festival show, and then a book.
Luke will be part of our One Night Wonders show in Melbourne this Friday night, July 25, appearing alongside spoken word performer Abe Nouk and a headline set from Eleanor Jackson. All of them are brilliant. There’s event information in the sidebar to your right, or you can reserve a seat here. You’re welcome to rock up on the night, but it’s a small venue so booking is sensible.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo – Chapter 1
I’m as serious as cancer / When I say rhythm is a dancer.
– ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ by SNAP!
At the age of twenty-two I was diagnosed with cancer. Again. Occurring eleven years after my first guided tour through the cancer nightmare factory, it was, to put it lightly, not quite how I saw my year panning out. At that time, at that age, the next twelve months were supposed to involve (in rough order of priority): drinking with friends, drinking alone, getting laid, general time wastage, working a low-paid job, watching bad daytime television and pretending to study. Chundering multiple times a day was pretty close to the bottom of the list, right above being sent to prison for murder and getting caught having sex by my parents.
Nobody ever really plans for cancer, but having already been through the horror once – and, moreover, having been told six years previously that I was wholly cured – I was perhaps less prepared than most. This might sound strange to an outsider, but when you are cured of cancer, you are cured. You ride that particular pony of good health until it drops dead from exhaustion. Or from the surprise tumour growing in its right shoulder. I would scoff at the newspapers and their day-to-day insistence that mouthwash, or mobile phones, or the mere act of breathing was going to give me cancer. These were rules that didn’t apply to me anymore. I’d done my time. Cancer was a problem for other people now. As I figured it, from here on in I could expect an uninterrupted sixty years of good health before dying peacefully surrounded by family and friends while being shot out of a cannon at my eightieth birthday.
And then, suddenly, there we were. Cancer. The Big C. C-Town. A huge ol’ fucking tumour. Back to the barricades once more, men. Hold our calls and re-classify our hopes and dreams into the folder that says ‘Survival’. Let’s just book that cannon for my twenty-third birthday and go from there.
When I meet new oncologists, one of the first things they’ll ask me about is my ‘family history’. Tumours aren’t necessarily genetic, but my body’s passion for producing them would appear to demand something more than mere happenstance.
As it is, its continuing attempts to kill itself raise serious questions about my rightful place within the Darwinian order. When my second tumour appeared, I half expected my parents to sit me down and tell me about the Ryan Family Curse – the long litany of cancer-stricken forebears on each side of the family that had somehow culminated in producing me, cancer’s version of a superhero.
But we are, as a family, no more or less disposed towards tumours than anybody else. My aunt Julie had breast cancer, my uncle Pete prostate. Pop had colon cancer, but this was a man who would eat three Four’n’Twenty pies without blinking, so perhaps that was to be expected. All of them survived. The only real outlier in all of this was my Dad’s mother, Mary, who died when he was sixteen, the victim of what the family suspects was ovarian cancer. I say suspects because, this being 1961, such matters weren’t openly discussed with the children. They didn’t even know she was ill until weeks before her death. But she’s the sole mortal post in our collective story, the only arbitrary victim of cancer’s predations. The quite literal death in the family. As Grandpa Kevin had later remarried, I did not even know Mary existed until I was ten. Even her children weren’t discussing it openly with their children.
And then there’s me. An osteogenic sarcoma at eleven, a pleomorphic undifferentiated sarcoma at twenty-two. At thirty-three, I plan on exploding at a party filled with friends and loved ones. Just to really drive the point home. And unlike Mary, I’m discussing it with everyone.
Sarcoma is a little-known cancer variant that accounts for around fifteen per cent of childhood cancers but fewer than one per cent of those seen in adults. Usually affecting the body’s connective tissues – bone and muscle – they’re known to be aggressive, resistant to most chemotherapies and awful people to invite round for dinner. When discovered, sarcomas are treated rapidly and brutally, with every weapon at oncology’s disposal: chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and the ominously named ‘salvage’ surgery. No quarter is given. The whole thing plays out as a crash course in well-planned ruination. But within these doom-laden prophecies there lies a broad spectrum of experience.
I am in the reasonably strange position of having had cancer at two very distinct phases in my life. Most people if they’re going to go through it more than once tend to do so a few years apart – a kind of chained together half a decade of awfulness, where the second incident can be considered an extension of the first. But for me the events could not have been more distinct. In 1997 I was a wholly dependent child, by 2007 I had entered something approaching adulthood. The gravity of the first I could almost ignore, the second incident brought home with staggering intensity the fact that I might die. There is something to be said for the blissful ignorance of childhood.
Yet by the same token, the way I talk about my two bouts with cancer is not so dissimilar to how women might talk about the gulf between individual pregnancies. In one, I vomited constantly, lost a dangerous amount of weight and was bedridden in hospital for close to an entire year. In the other, I was sprightly, asymptomatic and even managed to pack on a couple of kilos. I spent my life at the pub, and weekly hospital visits were the biggest reminder that I was, in fact, ill. Had they not both happened to one person I’d struggle to believe we were talking about the same disease. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the lingering trauma of my first tumour, the eight-month paid holiday (thank you, Centrelink) that was my second would feel almost vulgar to write about.
Yet cancer is nothing if not a multifaced beast. It resists categorisation and simplification. It can be vast and irreparable or small and fleeting. It can be tragic or comic. It can be all of these things or none. But in the end what really unites those whose bodies have turned against them is something more basic altogether: fear, and the ever-present hope that one day this will all return to normal.
I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as being an expert at having cancer, but perhaps in this field I could be considered decorated in my own way. My body certainly wears its scars like medals, a tangled constellation of dents and pocks and long white lines that stretches from neck to knee. They have been the defining events of my existence, two major, evenly spaced derailments of my life’s path. They are also, given my white, suburban, middle-class, Catholic upbringing, quite possibly the only things of interest to have ever happened to me. You take the good with the bad.
Still, the potential hilarity of the disease wasn’t the firstthing on my mind when the doctors told me they’d found a seven-centimetre growth on my right lung. It wasn’t even the second, or the third, or the two-hundredth. (That thought, like the 199 before it, could not in good conscience be printed in a family-friendly book.) But as I once again entered what Christopher Hitchens described as ‘the land of malady’, I found myself keenly aware of how being diagnosed with cancer shifts you – defines you anew in the eyes of friends and strangers alike. I was, perhaps, especially awake to this because I didn’t look or feel ill. Even after I lost my hair, people preferred to think I was making a bold fashion choice than to assume the worst. But then I’d utter that single, all-powerful phrase: ‘I have cancer.’ Three spoken words that are the conversational equivalent of a needle being scratched off a record. If you need to look for a silver liningin your cancer diagnosis, then take this: you have the power of life and death over every social interaction you have. Use it wisely.
Being a young man with cancer ups the ante even further because you can pretty much guarantee that you are going to be the only person in your social circle who has cancer. Moreover, there is a better-than-even chance that you’re the only person your friends have ever met who has cancer. Some responsibility. I am cancer’s ambassador for the early twenties set. Best leave a good impression. Make ’em smile, try not to spew on the soft furnishings and wipe your feet on the way out.
There are certain expectations of people who have cancer, certain ideas of the stories they are able to tell and the way they are able to tell them. Having cancer deposits you in a world of inspirational New Idea spreads on one side, tawdry tabloid hysteria on the other. You’re a hero or you’re a survivor. Admiration and fear, each as deadening as the other. I wanted none of that and was willing to go to lengths to deny it.
The grating thing about it for me, in the initial blush of my second tumour, wasn’t the prospect of chemotherapy, or surgery, or the looming spectre of my own mortality, or even the abrupt sidetracking of my life plans. Rather it was the fact that once more I was going to be the guy who had cancer. The sympathy case, the person who carved awkward silence through every conversation he came across. The guy whose bald head would radiate the message: ‘One day you will die. But I will die sooner. Want to hang out?’
I’d been through all that before. The novelty had worn off. It had only been a few years since I’d stopped prefacing my introductions to people with the fact that I’d once had cancer, a conversational tic born of worry that people I met might be confused about the limp and built-up shoe I was left with after the bout in 1997. I was in no rush to find myself hemmed in once more by such a fundamental character trait. But suddenly there I was. Back over the border in this country of uncomfortable conversation and pitying looks, standing amidst the awkwardness of friends and the unfettered sympathy of strangers. The reduction of myself down to that dreary designation – the cancer guy. I feared that more than anything else right then.
So I turned to stand-up comedy – the one type of performance where you can be guaranteed that nobody will take you seriously. Well, that and mime.
I’m willing to admit that this might be a peculiarity of youth. At twenty-two it’s hard to justify your existence as being driven by anything more than well-meaning hedonism, and I had little interest in submitting my quality of life, the shape of my life, to this awful, abstract force. I didn’t want special treatment or the consideration of others. I wanted this to be utterly, unarguably normal. I wanted there to be no barrier, no gaps in the dialogue. I wanted cancer to be happenstance, incidental, an experience that had no intrinsic value beyond that which I put into it. More than anything, I wanted people to laugh about it, because that’s the only way I knew how to deal with the shit of life.
Comedy became my way of fulfilling this cancer manifesto. It was my way of taking control of the narrative, of setting the boundaries of what this cancer meant. In a land colonised by silence and uncertainty, I wanted to speak first and to make it clear that this was all OK. That I was OK. That there was no difference between Luke with cancer and Luke without cancer. And that, in treatment’s aftermath, I wasn’t feeling the panicI sometimes felt.
This book is, in its small way, another gesture towards these declarations. It’s not a book about denying cancer, but about seeing cancer as part of a life, rather than its sum total. An attempt to find the best in the worst, and the humour in the irredeemable. To get as much out of these tumours as they’ve gotten out of me. To call them ordinary until it starts to sound like the truth.
I’m still alive. The end of the story has been given away. All I can do now is try to find some meaning in the detail.
I should add that I do, on occasion, feel a certain sense of apprehension that I don’t deserve to be writing a book about myself at the undeniably young age of twenty-eight. After all, who am I to tell you about life? What have I achieved? As I see it, all I’ve really done for the past couple of decades is pick up novelty illnesses and vomit a bit. When I expressed this reservation to my housemate a while back, he paused, looked at me for a second and then said, ‘You know, you have had cancer twice. I don’t think people are really going to begrudge you this.’
Fair point. So, here’s my book.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo is out now in bookshops and e-book sites through Affirm Press.