Joe Yannetty earns a living making people laugh, so when it came to thanking his caregivers at Dana-Farber/New Hampshire Oncology-Hematology (DF/NHOH) for the successful treatment of his throat cancer, candy or flowers just wasn’t going to cut it.
For Yannetty, a Boston-based comedian since 1983, gratitude was best expressed by doing what he does best: taking the stage.
“When I got cancer, I didn’t know if I’d ever perform again,” he says. “They saved my life and helped me smile again.”
After a tonsillectomy in February 2014 helped alert doctors to Yannetty’s cancer, he knew Dana-Farber was where he wanted to go. His cousin had been treated at Dana-Farber 15 years ago for leukemia, and recently became a grandmother. “I’d never consider going anywhere else,” says Yannetty.
The challenge was that the New Hampshire resident lived about a 45-minute drive from Dana-Farber’s Boston campus, and he faced nearly two months of intensive treatment on an almost daily basis. When his ear, nose, and throat doctor told Yannetty about Dana-Farber’s Londonderry facility, which was just one mile from the comedian’s home, he was thrilled.
“Sometimes even that one mile was a long ride during treatment, I was so tired,” Yannetty says. “I can’t even imagine how hard it would have been to go to Boston every day.”
When asked the best thing about his care in Londonderry during spring 2014, Yannetty answers quickly. “It was the love,” he says. “Dr. Frederick M. Briccetti, my oncologist, always knew what was coming next and prepared me for it. The nurses, radiation techs – everybody was just amazing. I would come in looking and feeling like hell, and these two receptionists were always like, ‘Good to see you, you look great.'”
In addition to the warmth he received, Yannetty says his own skills helped him during the toughest times.
“There were days during treatment when I’d sleep 22 hours,” he explains, “So whenever I was awake I was trying to keep my sense of humor up.” Friends in Boston’s vibrant comedian community were also supportive, holding fundraisers to help Yannetty during the months he was unable to perform. His brother and girlfriend were constantly by his side.
And while Yannetty was initially concerned about permanently losing his voice, and with it his career, he was soon ready for his first time back on stage – in a very special performance.
“I rented out a Lion’s Club hall down the street from the [DF/NHOH] center, and scheduled a performance for a day and time all my caregivers could make it,” Yannetty says. “I did some regular material, but also a lot of jokes about my treatment. It was great to see them laughing along with me.”
For Briccetti, who knew what a toll cancer had taken on his patient, the show was a revelation.
“I came away from his performance thinking, ‘Joe is a comedian, yes. But what he is, at heart, is a story teller. The way he was able to put together that account of his life-changing experience clearly helped him heal. It was cathartic for us, who helped him through. It was also incredibly funny.”
Yannetty agrees, and when he returned to the regular comedy circuit last fall he kept some of his new material about cancer treatment in the act.
“People are afraid to joke about cancer because they think it’s the boogeyman, but you need to face it,” he says. “If I can help people who are going through it – if they can laugh a little bit at the whole thing, like I do – that’s great.”