Comedian Jesse Case Podcasts Through Metastatic Cancer

By on October 22nd, 2015 Categories: Community Knowledge

Jesse Case was living in Los Angeles, performing nightly standup shows, and co-hosting the comedy podcast Probably Science when his aunt was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. He and his family became frequent visitors to as she was going through treatment, sharing information and spending time in the stage IV Discussion Board forums.

At the same time, Jesse was going through his own health uncertainty, working with doctors to try to resolve symptoms that seemed to suggest Crohn’s disease.

In June, at age 29, Jesse was stunned to learn that his diagnosis was actually stage IV colon cancer that had metastasized to his liver. Insurance difficulties in California led to a move home to Nashville to start an aggressive treatment regimen at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

Facing several months of chemo and some surgeries, Jesse was forced to take a break from standup gigs. But instead of going quiet during treatment, he started producing a weekly comedy podcast, Jesse vs. Cancer — sometimes recording during chemo infusions. And yes — it’s funny. And as he’ll tell you, it’s not for everyone. Along with cancer updates, music he’s listening to, featured listener email, and comedic observations about moving back in with his parents, there are strong opinions, plenty of f-bombs, and an iTunes “Explicit” rating. Some moments are brutally honest, angry, and raw; others are warm, compassionate, and moving.

On a September afternoon, he talked with me from his parents’ backyard in Nashville, where he jokingly promises to invite listeners to hang out once he alienates enough of them to whittle his audience down to five.

CN: There’s so much, especially in that first Jesse vs. Cancer podcast, that’s so explicitly laid out about how this all happened, and it’s a wild ride. You learned about your diagnosis in one of the most dramatic ways imaginable.

JC: I know, shark hunting. It’s weird to get diagnosed with colon cancer while you’re shark hunting. I don’t know how it works! [laughs] It was awful. It was just off the Santa Barbara coast, and I was there with my harpoon when they told me the news. [laughs] But yeah. I found out after a colonoscopy.

CN: [laughs] And that wasn’t the first colonoscopy you’d had — you’d had a few of them?

JC: Well, I’d had a few recreationally. This was the first professional, medical one I’d had. It was the first one I didn’t do myself. [laughs] But yeah. It was my first one. They were trying to determine what type of Crohn’s disease it was. It was so assumed that it was Crohn’s. So just the mental switch when I went in — the word cancer hadn’t even been mentioned. When I went in, it was the end of my journey, I thought. Because I’d been dealing with this stuff for a year and a half.

CN: Right. You’re already worn down from the experience when you get there.

JC: Yeah. I was really sick, and I thought, “Finally, I’m going to feel better. Within a week, I’m going to have a prescription in my hand for something that’s going to make me feel better. This is awesome.” So I was excited for the colonoscopy. I even brought my own lube. I was pumped about it. [laughs] And then I wake up in a different reality, in a different world.

When they told me what was up, the first thing out of my mouth was, “My mom can’t do this.” It wasn’t denial; it was just like, “No, this isn’t right.” But not for me. For her. My mom is in healthcare. She’s a doctor of nursing, so she’s really got palliative chops. For two years, my mom took care of [her sister] during all of her breast cancer treatment. She outlived her prognosis quite significantly. And that was the hardest two years of my mom’s life. My aunt died, and then my mom’s mother died, and then a few months later her father. And then two months later, my thing. It was like, “do you live in a Darren Aronofsky movie? Who is this happening to?”

CN: Right!!

JC: And each time one of these things would happen, we thought, “Okay, now it’s over.” Statistically, you would think that’s going to be the most difficult year of her life. I mean, statistically, what kind of universe would that happen in?

And it was pretty clear to me that the thing to do would be to just go home for treatment. Because I could just stay in California, but the insurance I was on, the only package I was eligible for was just not getting it done, and I would have had to be on all these lists. So I was meeting with an oncologist within 3 days of getting home. That’s just the way they treat the patients at the Ingram Center, which has been great. You could be anyone and they’d say, “Come in tomorrow.” So it was cool. They were really on it. I was meeting with people right away and figuring out the plan. So then I got my port put in the following Monday, and within a week was getting my first round of chemo. It was incredibly quick.

CN: And that happens a lot to people. They’re being confronted with all these things; it’s like being rammed through this pasta-maker so quickly.

JC: Yeah. And there’s a point of just giving up control, which I think happens not only existentially, but also just happens on paper, medically. Because they’d be explaining things that were going to happen to me where I didn’t even understand, and eventually I just quit asking questions. That might sound weird. But nobody wants a bad outcome here. Everybody wants the best thing. And it is weirdly relieving to give up control.

CN: Yes. Midnight medical Googling can be a slippery slope.

JC: Oh yeah. Googling. I mean, there are resources that need to be readily available — like what you guys are doing. But a lot of people tend to search for negative information. I don’t know why we’re so self-destructive like that. I’m also not a blind hope guy; I’m just a realistic guy. And the weird thing, too, is — I don’t want to be reliant on hope for my happiness. So I sort of had to let go of that, too. I was like, you know, this could go either way, and I think either way I want to be okay with that. That’s the ultimate goal.

CN: And that jumps out about you. When a person is diagnosed with cancer, there are so many crux points with varying degrees of uncertainty, and uncertainty is one of the most uncomfortable things that human beings experience. You’re constantly emotionally negotiating with that.

JC: We’re not used to it culturally. Cancer is the least American thing ever. [laughs] It is. It’s un-American. We need answers. And then somebody comes at you and they’re like, “We don’t know.” And you’re like, “Wait, I’ve never heard that before. [laughs] What are you talking about?” I mean, we publicly crucify our weathermen when they’re wrong. You know what I mean? That’s how much we need to know. That’s how much we hate chaos.

CN: And you have to figure out how to respond to that, over and over.

JC: Yeah. And no matter what, it immediately puts you in the London Blitz. You’re like, “Okay, maybe the bombs come tonight. I don’t know.”

CN: And you respond with humor.

JC: That’s how I respond to everything. I’ve never taken life that seriously. This sounds weird, but I’ve already been living for decades like I was terminally ill, so it didn’t change much. [laughs] You know, I’ve never woken up and looked at the sunrise and gone for a nice jog on the dewy track. I’m like, yeah, I’m gonna sleep in, have some coffee, and then go tell d*ck jokes at night for a living. [laughs] So it’s not like, crazy, aside from the physical symptoms. And I’ve been very fortunate for that. Humor, to me, is the only way to respond to it.

CN: And for so many of us, it’s not easy to access that part of ourselves until the whole initial diagnosis crazy calms down. There can be a kind of violence to the diagnostic process. It’s fast and furious.

JC: It is violent. It Tokyo Drifts at you. [laughing] You go into shock. There’s a detachment that happens. It’s the same thing as various other traumas that everyone knows about. You feel like you’re in a movie, you’re just watching this weird thing happen to you.

CN: It’s like a dissociation. You’re not quite there.

JC: Absolutely. You’re not quite there, and, you know, ironically, as a comedian, not only is it my whole manifesto to not take anything that seriously, because I think the futility of things is really actually beautiful and comforting; it doesn’t bum me out — but I’m not like one of these “Nothing matters so I’m gonna litter” guys. I’m more like, “Nothing matters so we need to make the world really awesome.” That’s the whole thing about nothing mattering. Let’s make it matter.

CN: Right. You’re not nihilistic.

JC:  No, I’m not nihilistic at all. Weirdly, almost like a bad M. Night Shyamalan movie, it sort of felt like, “Oh, this sort of all makes sense. I had the ingredients for this.” I think a lot of patients experience the same thing. It’s like, “Okay, I know all the breathing skills and the exercises.” I know how to negotiate a panic attack and not get freaked out about it, because the last 10 years of my life has been staring at the human condition and analyzing it and coming up with material about it. It didn’t even make sense until hindsight, but it’s almost like I’ve been in a cancer boot camp.

CN: You know, I woke up this morning and that came to me. You’ve said that you had a moment, or maybe several moments, when you became okay with the idea that maybe things wouldn’t turn out okay. And you were already conditioned for that. When you go onstage in front of an audience, you don’t know if you can trust how they’re going to respond. And you already have to be okay with the fact that you could throw a set, or bomb.

JC: Oh yeah, yeah. You have to not only be okay with it, but you have to embrace it and find it funny and weird if that’s how it goes down… as to not go crazy. [laughs]

CN: Yes. So you’re not attached to outcomes so much.

JC: Yeah. You have to just be attached to the moment. You know, it’s the principle of mindfulness — the Thich Nhat Hanh mindfulness studies, the principle of that. Panning out and taking that moment for what it is. I feel fortunate — it’s a weird thing to say as a cancer patient — but I feel fortunate that that’s the position I was in, because you know, I talk to a lot of people, I get emails from the podcast, and there are a lot of people — I know you know this with what you guys do; they’re in a committed marriage where they have a kid they have to explain this to, and maybe they’ve also had the same job since college, and they’ve never stared into the abyss, and now they have to, and it can be a complete personality shift. And with me, it was like, “Ehh. It makes sense.” [laughs] You know?

CN: [laughs] Yeah. It’s amazing that your whole narrative was going this way. Has the process of starting to get okay with it — did that happen rapidly, or in increments?

JC: Yeah, I mean, I’m still getting okay with it. It started happening pretty quickly, I think. When you’re diagnosed with something like this, there are things that we know, that everyone knows — we’re all aware of our own mortality. But you don’t knowwww know it. You just know it. It’s like the way that you look at the stars at night and you’re like, “Oh cool, how beautiful and twinkly are those?” and there are other times when you look at them, and you realize, “Man, that’s a lot of space.” It’s real heavy. And getting a cancer diagnosis, you’re immediately yanked out of the matrix. The things that don’t matter are immediately apparent, and the weird thing is, it’s the stuff that we all already know. We all know the things that distract us, and we know when our heads are in the sand. We’re a lot smarter than we give ourselves credit for.

I mean, you deeply suspect it. You tool around on Facebook for several hours a day, and it doesn’t feel good, but you know what you’re doing. Deep down, you know you’re distracting yourself from things. And that option is just gone, because you’re staring at this thing — you’re forced to. So I think the perspective change — and I’m not saying everyone handles it the same way; people handle it in a vast variety of ways — no matter what, it’s a shift. And that happens to everyone.

So with me, my natural inclination was to just try to get okay with this, and accept it, and whatever happens happens, and, you know, be a good person and try to push the ball forward as much as I can, and all this stuff we should all be doing anyway. And that’s been the biggest lesson to me. Cancer — it makes you live your life the way you were supposed to be living it. We should all be living a day at a time. We should all be telling people we love them. We should all be volunteering places. We should all do that. And aside from the actual tumor up my a**hole, it’s been great. [laughs]

CN: [laughs] Nice wrap-up.

JC: [laughs] Well you know, I find that when you’re talking about things like this, it’s important to be eloquent.


Stay tuned next month as Jesse talks about going out to do standup comedy in the midst of chemo infusions.


Jesse vs. Cancer podcast graphic design by Sally Grossart,

Claire Nixon, Editorial Director — Claire directs a team of writers, researchers, content managers, and physicians through the creation of high-integrity web content. She brings 20 years of experience in health communications and journalism to the team, as well as the lens of the patient – she was treated for breast cancer in 1998 and again in 2012. In her off-time, Claire enjoys creative writing, independent films, meditation, and the ocean.

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