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Cancer from a Comedian’s Point of View

by John David Sidley

Inspiration image

When I first found out I was going to get chemotherapy, I went out and got my head shaved, figuring I was going to beat them to the punch. Then I found out the drugs I was going to take didn’t have that side effect. Hey! Tell a guy!

That’s a joke. One of many I started writing and performing after I was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. Yeah, stage IV. When I heard that, I thought, Oh, that’s not so bad. It could be stage X. What? It only goes up to stage IV?

Another joke. You see, I’m a professional stand-up comic. For the past 20 years, I’ve performed at clubs and done one-nighters in various venues across Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, all while keeping my day job. I’m also one of the cofounders of the Cleveland Comedy Festival. In fact, I was the first performer on stage at the very first festival. My family, friends, nurses, and doctors tell me that being funny has helped me survive these past three years. Maybe it has.

Is cancer funny? No. But we comics look at life from different angles. We’re seeing the same things you are, but with our heads cocked a little.

I’ve always found the funny in life and have shared it to make others laugh. After I got sick, I didn’t suddenly become funny. I just had a new topic – cancer.

Is cancer funny? No. But we comics look at life from different angles. Like a photographer who points his lens low or high or turns it upside down, we’re seeing the same things you are, but with our heads cocked a little.

During the first three or four months after I was diagnosed, I was absorbed in my sickness. Then I began to realize I was not going to die right away. I started thinking about performing again. I knew I had to develop an entirely new act. And I knew I had to deal with what was real – my cancer.

As the second annual Cleveland Comedy Festival rolled around, I set my goal to perform for 15 to 20 minutes. My wife and daughters packed my wheelchair in the trunk, and we drove downtown to the festival. I was introduced, got out of my wheelchair, and did my 15 to 20 minutes of comedy to an amazing response. Then I sat back down in the wheelchair – exhausted.

I’ve gotten stronger since then. I’ve replaced the wheelchair with a fancy cane. I’ve done a number of comedy shows, including two more Cleveland Comedy Festivals. I’ve written more jokes about my experience, and I’ve expanded my set. About once a year, I have a setback that puts me in the hospital. But during each visit, I fill a small notebook with jokes.

If your pain level is a 10, should anybody really have to ask?

Does looking at the funny side of sickness make you live longer? I don’t know. But it does make your life happier. What I do know is whenever I am introduced, as I step on the stage and the light hits me, I sit on the stool and adjust the mike, and I look out over the people sitting in the dark and start telling jokes and hearing their laughter, I feel no pain.

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JD Sidley is a colon cancer survivor and professional stand-up comic based in Cleveland, OH. He’s being treated at the Moll Center at Fairview Hospital, a Cleveland Clinic hospital. He is also a cofounder of the Cleveland Comedy Festival. For more information about the Festival, visit ClevelandComedyFestival.com.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2012.