Jesse Case on Community: “We Have Each Other. It’s Okay.”

By on December 17th, 2015 Categories: Community Knowledge

This month, we’re wrapping up our three-part series with 29-year-old standup comic Jesse Case. In part one and part two, we get into his diagnosis of stage IV colon cancer earlier this year, his connection to Breastcancer.org, and what it’s like to go out and do standup comedy between treatments. He podcasts each week at Jesse vs. Cancer, an hour-long show that’s funny, dirty, honest, chaotic, empathic, explicit, and “not for everyone,” he says. He’s currently finishing up a second chemo regimen and plans to get back out on the road for a standup tour in 2016.

CN: Sometimes it’s difficult if you’ve started the process of coming to terms with a diagnosis, but the people around you aren’t there yet – your friends, your family – and you find yourself calming them down and managing their emotions in addition to your own. Is that something you’ve had to deal with?

JC: A lot. Yes. I think a lot of patients go through double duty like that. And it’s one of those things where unfortunately, because of the stigma of something like cancer, people project a lot onto the patient of what they assume they would feel like. Because a lot of people can’t imagine. And that’s something you hear a lot as a patient. “I can’t imagine what I would do.” Every patient is told they’re handling it well. Because other people just can’t imagine it and it’s like well, yeah, you just do it. What else are you going to do? It’s your reality now.

CN: Yeah. It’s almost strangely easier in some ways because as a patient, you’ve got a to-do list you can check off, and the people around you don’t.

JC: Yeah. And I think the patient sort of develops these sort of existential superpowers, even if they don’t realize it. Even ones who get angry. You’re still handling it better than anyone assumes they would. And a lot of that gets projected onto you. So yeah. People around me are really bummed out a lot. Sometimes I’ll be getting lunch with a friend and I’ll notice they’re just tearing up. It’s like we weren’t even talking about it; we were talking about whatever. And it’s like c’mon, dude. [laughs]  It’s not that big of a deal. But sometimes you’ll occupy a reality that someone else just cannot know. And I think that’s okay. I think it’s important as a cancer patient to also give those people a pass. Because I think it would be really easy for me to get resentful of them. But then I realize you know what? It’s not their fault that they can’t know this reality. And that’s okay.

CN: Yeah. New patients are shocked out of their perceptual limits – and that’s beyond most people’s perceptual limits.

JC: Yeah. Well, I think so much of that is cultural. The two biggest taboos to talk about in our society are sex and death, which is how we all came into the world and how we all leave it, and those are the two most important things – it’s like the two definites. It’s like hey, this is how you got here, and this is what happens at the end, and we have no maturity with those subject matters. Just no cultural maturity at all. It scares us or makes us giggle. On both ends. So, you know, I don’t begrudge anyone of that. I think that long-term, some cultural shifts would be nice. I don’t think acknowledging your own mortality, once you get through the shock of it, I don’t think it’s that scary. And it’s also really unifying. It’s not like it’s just you. It’s everyone. And that’s why a lot of times, and I know this annoys a lot of patients I’ve talked to, the special treatment can feel just as demeaning.

CN: Yes, if people are putting you on a pedestal or canonizing you.

JC: Right! And it’s kind of weird – we all have the same outcome. I was thinking about how if I went to Disneyland and they let me skip the line, I’d feel so weird walking past all those people. I mean, do these people — they’re gonna die too. Do they not know they’re gonna die? [laughs] Everyone should be able to skip this line. There shouldn’t be a line! [laughs]

CN: Yeah. And even if you have cancer, you know…You still have to take out the trash just like everyone else.

JC: Yeah! [laughs] It’s extremely universal. My timetable may have shifted a bit, but it’s also like – like I was saying about it being very un-American. We’re used to a security of life here, but the patient is immediately third world. You don’t know when the end is coming. You don’t know about this reality you have to deal with. And there are a lot of places in the world where that’s fairly common. There’s the Sudan. Right now there are people fleeing Syria and not able to get into a country. I just mean it’s like — being put on a pedestal, my experience is not worth any more than anyone else’s. There’s a lot of heavy stuff going down all the time. People view it as so unfair, and the stuff I think is unfair is the stuff that humans do to one another. Mass shootings, and things like that. That’s unfair. This is nature.  Dogs get cancer too, you know? This is like a thing that happens. It’s not really negotiable, and everyone around you is trying to negotiate with it. And once you’ve accepted as the patient that it’s not negotiable, that can be very frustrating. Because other people cannot handle something being non-negotiable. They can’t handle it.

CN: Yeah. And that’s a real separator.

JC: Yeah! You feel like an alien a lot. But I think that’s why communities like the one that you’re working with are so important. You know? We have each other. It’s okay.

CN: And you’ve created a little bit of a community too.

JC: Meh. I’m trying.

CN: I saw it.

JC: [laughing] Yeah. You saw the 20 posts from 20 people? I’m trying to get down to five people. I’m worried this’ll get to be too many people.

CN: [laughs] Well, what I noticed is that they’re from all over the world. It’s very international, and it sounds like you’re getting a lot of email from listeners.

JC: I am. Too much to keep up with, actually.

CN: What’s it like to read all those messages?

JC: It’s incredible. I leap out of bed in the morning. It’s so cool. I absolutely love it. It’s a huge — it’s the most validating thing ever. I’m one person. All it takes is two people, maybe, realizing they should maybe go in for some early testing or something to literally validate my whole existence. [laughs] It’s beautiful. It’s great.

CN: And another one of those moments where you’re wanting to connect is — it’s not just getting the diagnosis, but it’s also in planning your treatment — where you’re forced to adapt again to a lot of big changes in a very short time. The oncology team’s focus is, as it should be, doing whatever is needed to treat the cancer. But meanwhile the patient is taking in the intensity of what he or she is about to experience, which can seem overwhelming to try to process. And you highlight that so perfectly when you describe the nurse running down the extensive list of possible chemo side effects — nausea, neuropathy, your fingernails might fall off, all these things — and then, “cactus d*ck.” Which is hilarious.

JC: Yeah! Cactus d*ck! [laughs]

CN: But so many people with cancer recognize themselves in this place, and sometimes they’re locked into such isolation that when they hear a joke like that, it just opens everything up and makes them feel connected again.

JC: Ohhh, well thank you! I’ve been blown away at how cool and communal — it’s this thing where instantly everyone kinda gets it.  You just get it. It’s an immediate perspective shift, no matter how you’re handling it. I mean, I’ve heard from a lot of people who are really angry. They get angry when they get diagnosed, and a lot of people are so scared. It does matter, but to me that’s still just side effects. Everyone is still just looking at “the thing.”

CN: Yeah. It’s kind of like the person you know yourself to be at baseline blows up when you get a diagnosis or go through a crisis.

JC: Yeah. And those moments – it does become completely absurd. I mean, the idea that someone else’s day job is dealing with the biggest event in your life and they’re still just doing it like a day job. That’s the weirdest thing about cancer clinics. The nurses are joking with each other and talking about what they got for lunch, and you’re literally sitting there staring at the grim reaper. [laughs]

CN: [laughs] It’s crazy.

JC: [laughs] It’s the weirdest event. It’s so weird.

CN: And when you’re sitting there feeling isolated in this very severe experience, you feel that in a physical sense. There’s a constriction. And then when you talk to someone else who’s going through the same thing, especially if it results in a laugh, you’re immediately relieved.

JC: Yeah. I think laughter is the best medicine aside from any actual medicine. [laughs] That needs to be said. If anyone thinks that listening to my podcast will cure their cancer, they misunderstand that phrase. [laughs] They need to get treatment.

CN: Has hearing from your listeners changed anything for you?

JC: The one thing it’s done is that it’s made me less cynical of my own feelings and emotions. Because we’re all trained to, you know, be a little cynical. Let’s say you’re, I don’t know, at the grocery store and there’s a baby laughing – well no, that’s actually kinda creepy – [laughs] let’s say there’s some beautiful toddler smiling at you or something, and you think, “What a wonderful, beautiful moment I just experienced.” And then I squash that moment for myself, out of fear of seeming like a Lifetime movie. And I think the thing is, you just sort of let yourself be a Lifetime movie. [laughs] So yeah. I’ve been okay with being vulnerable, but I’ve always felt weirdly cynical about being vulnerable with the good stuff, like feelings of love and forgiveness and openness. I’m just — I don’t want to sound like some hippie. [laughs] And now, I’m just like, you know what? It’s how I feel. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. It’s fine. I shouldn’t apologize for my feelings, I suppose.

CN: No. You shouldn’t.

JC: Yeah.

CN: So now, it feels a little more Lifetimey?

JC: Yeah. A little more Lifetimey. Yeah, a little more.

CN: A little more warm and fuzzy?

JC: Yeah! I think it’s been really good for me like that.

CN: It’s really good. Yes.

JC: Yeah. The main warm and fuzzy part is the actual tumor, which is gross. And they’re like, “We’ve never seen a warm and fuzzy one before, but we need to get it out of there.” Here’s the deal: This whole thing might be a gerbil. [laughs] And I may have experimented in my teenage years, and this might be a huge misdiagnosis. I don’t know. [laughs]

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 Breastcancer.org 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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