Did you hear the one about the young guy with cancer?
How about the punchline about the middle-aged man battling Crohn’s disease for the last three decades?
Obviously, there is nothing funny about being diagnosed with a life-threatening or debilitating illness.
But people often encounter humour as they navigate their health care journeys, including sharing a camaraderie among other patients. And research has shown laughter really can be the best medicine.
Now, North York resident Zal Press is giving a voice to sick people through his new entertainment company called Patient Commando.
“Patient Commando uses public speaking, humour therapy workshops and live theatre to present compelling stories from the patient perspective,” a statement about the company said.
“It is the first initiative of its kind in Canada, producing ‘patient storytelling entertainment’ to create an environment of understanding – most often through the use of humour.”
Live performances, which raise money for charities, are one-man shows featuring patients using a combination of comedy and the real-life heartbreak of facing a serious illness to tell their stories.
Patient Commando’s inaugural production was held Thursday, May 12 at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio.
It featured Bloor West Village comedian, actor and cancer survivor Daniel Stolfi performing Cancer Can’t Dance Like This. The performance raised money for Lilah’s Fund, run out of the Hospital for Sick Children, which conducts research into neuroblastoma, a cancer most commonly diagnosed in youngsters under the age of five.
In 2008, at the age of 25, Stolfi was diagnosed with acute non-Hodgkin’s T-lymphoblastic lymphoma, a form of cancer that would require aggressive chemotherapy over the following two years and force him to put his budding career on hold.
The treatment caused him to lose his hair, appetite, physical strength, sex drive and desire to dance.
In Cancer Can’t Dance Like This, which Stolfi has been performing for two years at other venues, he turns those lost attributes into humorous characters.
For example, his hair becomes an Italian barber, his sex drive is a dirty-talking lounge singer and his appetite becomes Gino, still living with his parents who just wants to go out clubbing and “grab some street meat.”
“It (fighting cancer) was a horrible experience. Nothing was funny about it. But I’m a comedian and I try to find the humour in anything that happens,” said Stolfi, who will perform the show at this summer’s Toronto Fringe Festival.
Stolfi also punctuates the show with emotional readings from the journal he kept while battling cancer.
“I was pretty close to not being here (being alive) any more so I was pretty deep in the whole process,” he said.
“I was an 85-year-old man living in the mind of a 25-year-old. There were a lot of nights of pretty deep stuff. It (the play) mirrors the highs and lows and what going through treatment is like. I think that speaks to people.”
The May 20 performance ended with audience members up on their feet joining Stolfi dancing to a Michael Jackson medley as he celebrates beating cancer.
Stolfi acknowledged joking about serious illness is a sensitive issue.
His mother, who had watched her son come close to dying as he struggled with cancer, was initially appalled at the idea he would make light of his disease.
But she has attended many performances over the last two years and has laughed more than anyone, enjoying the happiness and comfort the show brings to patients and their families, Stolfi said.
Often, audience members come up to him after the show to say they were pleasantly surprised by the performance after being dragged to the show by someone else, he added.
Stolfi is particularly pleased a friend of his attended the show with her sister shortly before she died of cancer. The two women were so energized by the production, they decided to stay out all night dancing.
“I gave that to her,” he said.
Press, who lives in the area of Bathurst Street and Sheppard Avenue, has suffered for 30 years from Crohn’s disease, a painful and serious inflammation of the intestines.
“I was in and out of hospital like a revolving door for the first 15 years of the disease,” he said.
Press now jokingly acknowledges his illness hasn’t always made him the most pleasant patient to be around.
“You could call me Mr. Miserable,” he laughed, adding the medication he was taking caused weight gain and “mood swings worse than Lindsay Lohan.”
On the other hand, his wife often resorted to humour to see herself and their two children through.
Recently, Press had a revelation that prompted him to sell his mass market wall decor business and launch Patient Commando last fall.
He discovered he had been overpaying on his business rent for more than six years. While the landlord agreed, he refused to reimburse Press, leading to a two-year legal tussle.
Eventually, the landlord agreed to pay $35,000, which Press donated to the David Cornfield Melanoma Foundation, named in honour of his wife’s late nephew who died of the skin cancer at the age of 32.
“I just felt something really good happened that day,” he said, adding he also realized he had spent the last quarter century of his life on a business that didn’t fulfil any connection to humanity.
Press answered a call to become a volunteer public speaker for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of Canada.
But his first attempt at writing a speech produced a lecture sure to bring an audience down.
“I wrote this long story about my experience with Crohn’s disease and sent it to a friend of ours that has experience in the acting performing world,” he said.
“She suggested, ‘You may want to punch this up a bit.’ It was more complaint driven than insight driven.”
Press began working with Brian Smith, a producer, filmmaker and teacher with the Second City improv sketch comedy ensemble.
He grew to see his illness in a new and more humorous light.
Meanwhile, four years ago, Press began a new medication that has held the symptoms of his illness at bay.
At the time, Press, who had already endured two operations spaced about a decade apart, was facing the prospect of another surgery. Although the new medication is an immune-suppressant that could result in dire consequences, Press chose to take it rather than face another possible surgery.
“I would rather go out and get drunk. I would rather pass out that way (than on an operating table),” he laughed.
Between his new-found perspective on life, his more comedic view of his illness, and the reprieve in his medical symptoms, Press decided the time was ripe to sell his art business and launch Patient Commando.
“I was way more interested in telling stories and hearing people’s stories than in selling mass production art. It has been remarkably inclusive,” he said.
“For me, risk is the price you pay for opportunity. This is an opportunity to not only change my life, but to do some good in the world.”
– Lisa Queen, InsideToronto.com