Breast Cancer Survivor

Comedian Tig Notaro, known for her dry wit and deadpan delivery, took her Stage II invasive breast cancer diagnosis to the stage. She credits the support of her family, friends and fans with helping her heal. Today, she is cancer-free, juggling a successful career with her most important priority: her wife and sons.

My diagnosis came at a tumultuous time for me. I was in a great place with my career, but I didn’t feel well overall. Something was off. I came down with pneumonia, followed by a really serious C-diff infection. A week later, I lost my mother unexpectedly. Then my girlfriend and I broke up. Needless to say, I was not in the best place emotionally or physically when biopsy results showed Stage II invasive breast cancer in both of my breasts.

Until this diagnosis, I hadn’t gotten too personal about my life on stage. But it didn’t take long for me to figure out that as awful as it is, you can maintain a sense of humor while being sick.

I got on stage a few days after hearing my diagnosis and nonchalantly announced, “I have cancer.” I was completely taken by surprise at the outpouring of support online the following morning. This was 2012, and I didn’t have the grasp on social media that I eventually would. Strangers around the globe reached out when they heard about my diagnosis. The support was unexpected and very touching.

I met with an oncologist, and we decided my treatment plan was a double mastectomy. But after just a few appointments, she broke the news that she was moving to another city. That was a blow and did absolutely nothing to help me feel secure. I couldn’t help but wonder: did she just find out about her move?

Luckily, I found a surgeon that I adored. We talked through the surgery and reconstruction options. She laid out some possibilities: take fat from here and move it there, rebuild those nipples, cover the scars with tattoos. It seemed like a monumental decision. In the course of about two weeks, I was expected to choose how I wanted my body to be for the rest of my life. I was overwhelmed.

I didn’t connect with the idea of implants or tattoos, and I wasn’t crazy about having additional surgeries. Also, I couldn’t help but feel it’d be easier to catch a recurrence if there were less foreign objects in my body. I thought about doing no reconstruction at all. I ran the idea past some friends and they agreed that decision made sense for me.

I felt a little weird because my surgeon hadn’t brought it up as an option, but I asked, “Can we keep it simple? Can I just have the scars?” To which she replied, “Yeah, we can do that.”

At that time in my life, I was staunchly against putting anything in my body that wasn’t completely natural, so I refused pain medications after the surgery. As you might expect, the recovery was awful, and not having my mother there made it even worse. This was a time when I really needed her, and I didn’t have her. Not being in a primary relationship, with another person to help me through it, made it even more difficult. I’d literally been stunned from so many different directions. I’d felt pain, turmoil, confusion, love, relief.

Fortunately, I had tremendous support from other family members and friends. I refused their offers of help, insisting I didn’t need them even though I couldn’t lift my arms. These very good friends ignored my protests and came over anyway, sleeping at my house, helping clean the drains attached to my incisions and just generally taking care of me.

It took quite a while for me to feel better physically and emotionally. Once I did, I went back to work. About two months after my surgery, I started writing I’m Just a Person, a book about everything I’d gone through. It took me years to write a book that takes half a day to read, but it was one way to heal.

Always a fan of the awkward, I joked with a friend about possibly one day performing on stage without my shirt on but not talking about it. What would be more awkward than that? I’d just be up there, doing standup, without a shirt, with my scars exposed. We laughed about it, and that was that. But I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I really did want to take my shirt off on stage, though it was important to make sure it was funny, not just shocking. Could I tie scars that had healed after having cancer to comedy? I tried to by normalizing it. It was the funniest way I could express my feelings about it, and that was healing for me.

I’m happy, healthy and cancer-free. My wife Stephanie and I connected at a time when we both had the same wants and needs, one of which was to become parents. We laughed that one day we would just want to put “little pants on someone.” Now we have two sons, and sometimes we just marvel that we are literally putting little pants on the two little people that live in our house.

We are plant-based, and I’m all about educating the boys about how healthy foods contribute to their health. Every time they eat a walnut they repeat, “This is for our brains.” I read and research all the time. Stephanie asks me if I follow anyone on Instagram that isn’t just a head of lettuce.

I also move my body every day, which is crucial. The saying “use it or lose it” is so true. It applies to every part of your life: your body, brain, relationships. If you don’t take care of these important things, they will simply go away.

Photo by Mandee Johnson @mandeephoto