A breast cancer diagnosis is one of the most serious things a woman can face. But for Maggie Matthews, 42, making light of it in a stand up comedy routine was just the therapy she needed
I could tell by the consultant’s face, before he even opened his mouth, that I was going to get some bad news. Even the trainee doctor in the room looked shocked when he heard the words: ‘You’ve got cancer’. I am one of life’s optimists and the cyst-like lump I found hadn’t even worried my GP, let alone myself. Being just 36, I wasn’t expecting it at all. It was August 2009 and sitting in that room as the consultant delivered the news, the finality of his words hit me so hard I burst into tears. The last thing I would have imagined at the time was that four years later, after I’d been through treatment, I’d be on a stage doing stand-up comedy about having had breast cancer – and people would actually be laughing.
After the diagnosis I had a lumpectomy to remove the lump from my breast along with radiotherapy, drug treatment with Herceptin and Tamoxifen – breast cancer drugs – and chemotherapy. Obviously, this is one of the most serious things that can happen to anyone but I have got quite a good sense of humour anyway and along the way, there were many moments when I would try to find the humour, as much for a release as anything else. Some moments were just funny in and of themselves. One time I went wig shopping at a shop where it was obvious they rarely fitted 36 year olds so I received the same cup of tea and fuddy-duddy treatment as their regular over 60s customers. I had always wanted long, luscious locks and chose this long wig which I looked ridiculous in. When I got home my husband Rich was trying so hard to be nice about it but we both soon realised it was an awful wig and together went shopping for a better one.
But I never intended to do stand up about having had breast cancer. I work as a management consultant and in my job I have to make plenty of quick decisions, think fast and reach targets. But I had been off work for nine months with my treatment and when that came to an end I felt as though I had lost some of my fearlessness. I needed to do something that would push me to feel some of the fear and work through it in a situation that was low risk. Looking around to see what I could do, I came across a stand-up comedy course – so Rich and I signed up together. Everyone had to do a five minute ‘gig’ at the end of the course to a real-life audience. I originally planned to do mine about the industry in which I work, consultancy, because funny stuff was always going on. I spent weeks trying to write material but it just wasn’t coming.
During one of our classes, our comedy tutor James said: ‘You’ve got to look at your own life and find the funny.’ I wondered if I could do something on the whole breast cancer experience; of being younger and going through breast cancer with what I found to be a lot of fuddy-duddy-ness, formality and seriousness. Of course, breast cancer is a serious thing but the groups and leaflets and all that pink just didn’t speak to me. I didn’t want to spend hours in groups talking about my horrible experiences – and I felt guilty about feeling uncomfortable in those situations. I thought there must be people out there who felt the same way as me and might benefit from being a bit irreverent about the whole experience.
Before that first gig I was so nervous that if somebody had tapped me on the shoulder and said: ‘You don’t have to do this,’ I probably would have replied: ‘Oh, great.’ But nobody did. I opened by telling the audience about how I had breast cancer and I could see the room going ‘Crikey, what’s she going to do?’ Then I went, ‘It’s okay, you can laugh about it now.’ And they really did laugh – throughout the five minutes of my being on stage. The experience was cathartic and the buzz I got from having done it so priceless that I wished I could have written 25 minutes instead of five so I could have stayed up there longer. I got great feedback after the show and one older woman came up to me after the show and said: ‘I have had breast cancer and it was was so lovely to be able have a bit of a laugh about it which I’d never really done when I went through it myself.’
What does it feel like to laugh at something so serious? For me it’s an irreverence that’s about not wanting to be defined by something as serious as breast cancer. Knowing you can laugh and be a bit cheeky about serious issues takes away some of their power. That doesn’t mean they’re not serious but it can provide relief and perspective when you need it most.
As told to Anna Magee
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