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Living with cancer: A Q&A with comedian Fred Reiss

Three-time cancer survivor Fred Reiss uses comedy to share his experience with the disease.

Cancer isn’t what comes to mind when I think of stand-up comedy, but Fred Reiss may change that. A three-time cancer survivor, Reiss shares at Comedy Day 37  what it’s like to go for a follow-up PET scan to find out if your cancer is back, also joking that doctors found a computer chip in his neck and returned him to his original owner. I recently spoke with Reiss, who is also an inspirational wellness speaker and a novelist, to learn more.

When were you diagnosed and treated with cancer?

I was diagnosed with testicular cancer when I was 28 in 1982. Then about four years ago, I was diagnosed again with testicular cancer and treated at Stanford — I should have gone for the 2-for-1 deal on testicular removal and saved myself some money. And then a year ago when going for a routine endoscope, I found out I had esophageal cancer. Fortunately Stanford caught it early, and it’s gone now with treatment. So I’ve had cancer three times. I guess I’ll keep on doing this until I get it right.

I started wearing boxing gloves to chemo during my second bout of testicular cancer. I thought of the scene in "Rocky" when he throws the first punch and knocks Apollo down in the first round. I kept thinking: I need to be in shape to throw that punch. I need to fight for my life. So I decided to wear boxing gloves. Why should I be self-conscious? And the first day, I had someone take a photo in a fighting stance with the gloves. The nurses loved that.

Why do you do stand-up comedy?

The genesis was when I was 28 with testicular cancer. I was lying there with an IV in my soft blue vein and I thought: If I'm here again, who will I be? Who will be lying in this bed? I decided to move from the East Coast to California, go do stand-up comedy and write books.

Later, after I had cancer again, no one wanted to hire a two-time cancer survivor in his 50s to do comedy, radio, journalism, public relations or administration. I had to become Fred 2.0. So I thought, what do I have to say about going through all of this? And I headed back to the stage.

I started going to open mics to use the gravitas of my own mortality to help other people and explore myself. People in the audience wondered why I was there, because I’ve been on national TV, but you have to develop material at smaller clubs — the only way to find out if something works is by saying it. I’ve been on a billboard on Times Square to promote the film, "This is Living with Cancer." That was the result of two to three years of going to open mics and working on material. I know I’m betraying myself if I don’t go out and perform. I’m betraying the person that I vowed to be.

How did you become a cancer advocate?

My cancer advocacy grew out of my suffering and watching other people suffering — it alters you. When I first had cancer, I went through self-actualization to figure out what I wanted to do. The second time, I thought about what I was going to do and what I’d done. And the third time, my ego was completely gone and I thought about other people.

So I decided to travel two tracks — comedy and cancer patient advocacy. I started doing "Fred talks” (my brand of motivational Ted-style talks) and speaking to hospital groups, offering myself to people. In comedy, the audience wants jokes. But if I’m speaking to groups, the audience wants to know how I feel. It’s enormously satisfying. If they can help me out financially when I speak, that’s great. But if they can’t afford it, I don’t mind speaking for free.

During my talks, I use jokes, personal anecdotes and photographs to tell my story of being diagnosed and at the end overcoming cancer. I stress how to draw on your personality, passion, humor and the character of your life to overcome it. I also give practical tips on how to reduce your suffering. My main message is that you can’t let cancer define you; you have to let the spirit that enabled you to overcome it be given to others to help them prevail over the disease too.

In that spirit, I still visit Stanford when I can, giving out my books, CDs and food. I can’t do it every day, but it's a temple that I have to respect. It’s a way to pay homage and show that I haven’t forgotten the oncologists, nurses and all the people that made a difference. It’s not out of a sense of duty. These people did great things for me, so I’m trying to propel that toward the other people around me.

Previously: Tig Notaro: Using comedy to deal with cancer was a “godsend”Actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson champion cancer survivors at Stanford event and Former cancer patient returns to Packard Children’s to open new doors
Photo by Ben Moon

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