By Valerie Frank
Ever since I can remember, I’ve made people laugh. I was always the funny friend, and when I was in my mid-20s I made it official by becoming a Main Stage cast member of ImprovBoston — an improvisational comedy theater in Cambridge, MA. Once I retired from improv to become a suburban mom, I still kept my toe in the comedy scene as an associate producer of Boston’s Women in Comedy Festival, a large multi-day event which helped close the gender gap by showcasing women and their allies across all comedic platforms.
Then in 2018, when I was 44 years old, a really un-funny thing happened to me. While I was reading Mark Manson’s wildly popular self-help book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck,” I noticed a lump in my left breast. You’re reading a cancer blog, so you see where this is going. Contrary to the advice in the book’s title, I was about to give a lot of f*cks.
Once my breast cancer diagnosis was confirmed, my husband Jason and I knew immediately that I should be treated at Dana-Farber. If you’re going to get cancer, it’s extremely lucky to be near Dana-Farber. Jason’s mother had died of breast cancer when he was only 13, and at the time of my diagnosis our three daughters were in elementary and middle school. We understood not to mess around when it came to cancer.
We assembled a Dream Team at Dana-Farber led by Tari King, MD, FACS, chief of Breast Surgery. My doctors soon learned that while I am not always the easiest patient to treat (I do enjoy a good cry, often in their faces at appointments), I am one of the funniest. Despite the gravity of my having stage III breast cancer, we found reason to laugh at every single appointment.
That was when I realized, these people aren’t just doctors… they’re also an audience! If you’ve never done comedy for rowdy fraternity boys at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, you don’t know how grateful you are for a good audience at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday. Throughout my treatment at Dana-Farber, I have not just felt like a patient. I’ve laughed a lot, and cried a lot. I have felt seen — and known.
Memberships and callbacks
Jason and I were extremely scared, but we became a traveling oddball husband and wife comedy troupe of two. My husband is adorable, but lacking in the hair department. When I bemoaned the loss of my hair, he welcomed me to the Bald Club. And when my hair grew back after treatment, he enjoyed telling everyone that my membership had been revoked.
Chemo, five surgeries, and many radiation treatments later, I entered survivorship. Yay!
Everyone in comedy knows that a “callback” is a great tool. This is when you make a joke early in a show, and then later in the same set you find a way to return to it. The audience loves it. Well, my cancer thinks it’s some kind of comedian because in January of 2022 it did a callback. I was experiencing some back and shoulder pain. When I went in for some scans, I learned that my cancer had returned in my bones, lungs and liver. It was now stage IV metastatic breast cancer. Well, that callback joke totally bombed. Cancer, please leave the comedy to the professionals.
I tend to find humor in every situation, but at first it was really hard to find the funny aspects of incurable, metastatic breast cancer. I have three teenage daughters, a husband whom I adore, and a life I love. It turns out if you panic and cry enough you might be referred to the amazing Angela Lynn Landerholm, MD, an incredible psychiatrist who sees Dana-Farber patients. I was also struggling with pain control, and so Douglas Brandoff, MD, FAAHPM, my palliative care doctor, became an additional lifeline. To say he is compassionate is like saying Lebron James is kind of good at basketball. Dr. Brandoff is simply the best, and also very tolerant of my potty mouth.
I have done comedy shows in front of easy and tough audiences, but I can honestly say that the easiest person on earth to make laugh is my oncologist Sara Tolaney, MD, MPH, chief of Breast Oncology in Dana-Farber’s Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers. Cancer may be infectious at times, but you know what’s really infectious? Dr. Tolaney’s laugh! Seriously, if you’re ever headlining at a comedy club, put this doctor in the third row and watch the laughs roll in!
Plenty of material
I am still adjusting to life with a tough diagnosis, and I guess I will be from now on. Sometimes the only person I am really being funny for is myself. When you have cancer, it’s easy for people to say the wrong thing. One “wrong thing” I’ve heard frequently is, “I don’t know how you do it. I could never go through what you’re going through. You’re so strong!” I enjoy replying, “Yeah, when I think of you, I think… she could never do this! Good thing it’s me!” Ha!
Recently, my dog got cancer too. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “No! Not her dog!” Yup.
Anyway, we decided to give our dog two chemo treatments in an attempt to save his life. When we told Dr. Tolaney, she said, “Oh no, I am so sorry. That is so terrible!” To which my husband said, “What’s really terrible is that he’s going to lose all his fur!” Dr. Tolaney looked horrified, until I revealed we were messing with her. Oh, how we all laughed. We howled at the thought of our poor dog, naked.
At that point, my life really became a sad country music song. My dog had cancer, I had cancer. My dog died. Between appointments, I told my favorite nurse practitioner ever, Lindsay Shaw, NP, what had happened. And the next time we saw Dr. Tolaney, she immediately offered her sincerest sympathy. She’s that good a human.
I have a tough road ahead of me, but I know how lucky I am to be where I am. At the time of this blog post, there is no Improv Comic in Residence position at Dana-Farber, but I am working on it. Cancer really sucks, but look at the bright side. It’s material!