Comedian Steve Coombs finds the humour in his battle with cancer, taking his inspiring one-man comedy show across the province this fall.
We’re often told to look on the bright side, to find the lighter side of life. Steve Coombs can attest to the power of laugher more than most.
A longtime staple of Newfoundland’s comedy culture, Coombs is hitting the road with his inspiring mix of hilarity and drama Here and Now, a one-man comedy show inspired by his very real battle with cancer.
Fathers day at the ER
Coombs was first diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas in June of 2015 after seeking doctor’s care at the urging of his wife. His diminished energy and yellowing colour could no longer be attributed to the tiring lifestyle of a career-man and father.
“We went out to dinner one Saturday and my wife looked at me and she said ‘Stephen your eyes are some yellow.’ And I said they’re probably bloodshot from being tired. She said ‘no, they’re yellow,’” Coombs recalls.
“Father’s Day I passed blood and I ended up in the E.R. in St. Claire’s only to be sent home because they didn’t have the diagnostic staff on hand that evening. I was feeling well enough other than being tired … but by that Tuesday, which was the 23 of June, I was just zonked. I sent the kids off to school went down and got checked in St. Claire’s and after a couple hours and the C.T. scan they found the mass that was wrapped around the head of the pancreas and of course when I hear pancreatic cancer, that’s the silent killer.”
‘Cancer is sold to us’
Cancer looms large in the family tree. His sister lost her life to stomach cancer at the age of 29. The father of two would quickly undergo a Pancreaticoduodenectomy, aka a whipple procedure, to remove the cancerous mass from the head of the pancreas.
“When we eventually went to an oncologist, having mentally built myself up for chemotherapy, losing your hair and six months of treatments, we go into the doctor’s office and he says you’re cured! And I’m like what do you mean?”
It was discovered that the mass taken from Coombs’ pancreas was neuroendocrine, a non aggressive form of cancerous tumour. Radiation or chemotherapy was unnecessary following the lengthy surgery. Monitoring and regular doctors visits was all that was required.
A year later and doctors discovered a cancerous lymph node, which was quickly surgically removed. Coombs takes regular injections every four weeks to combat cancerous cells, but the immediate scare is over.
“I used to say cancer is all in the marketing, it’s how cancer is sold to us through movies, through television,” Coombs explains.
“When I initially had my diagnosis and I went to the oncologist me and my wife were thinking what’s next? How much chemotherapy are we expecting? All these things that you see that are on TV and movies and to go in and be told effectively you’re cured. When we walked out of the doctor’s office (post-whipple surgery) that day my wife was pretty much walking on air across the parking lot where I was in a fog. Pardon my French but what the f**k is happening? She’s planning trips to Disney World with the girls and in my head I’m going I don’t understand?
“In a weird way I felt robbed, I felt cheated,” he adds reflectively. “You mentally prepared for the moment that this other ball was going to get dropped in your lap. It’s not like I was walking out saying where’s my chemo? Where’s my huge physical battle, but it’s like someone let you win the fight. I use the analogy of walking into the ring with Tyson and he just throws his hands up in the air and says I give. So it’s weird. Once I had that initial thought I said to my wife I need to get my head screwed on straight because I don’t want to be six months outside of this and all of a sudden fall apart.”
Coombs realizes how lucky he is, dodging what is compared to a skyscraper-size bullet.
“Six months or so outside of being diagnosed it boiled down to being sat down one day wrapping Christmas gifts for the girls and realizing oh my God. I’m sat here wrapping Christmas gifts for the girls. Six months ago I didn’t think I’d see the end of the summer. It just hits you. It’s not post traumatic stress, officially, but I just had that feeling of stepping up off the curb and the transport truck whizzes by and you realize that was a pretty close shave. And it does change your perspective.”
Writing became Coombs’ therapy. He went back to the well of what he’s made a career of for decades, comedy.
Here and Now
Coombs sought out friend and local director Deanne Foley with the idea of putting his story to a medium like film or television. With the advice of she and fellow local legend Andy Jones, Coombs connected with director Charlie Tomlinson with the idea to turn his idea into a one-man production.
“Charlie took me on and helped me develop the first manuscript. We had a stage reading back in September 2017 and once that was under our belt he was like what do you want to do next? I said well I want to realize it as a full production and get it up on the stage.”
Here and Now premiered at the LSPU Hall last fall to rave reviews, with critics and fans applauding Coombs material marrying lighthearted comedy with real world, relatable struggle.
“I wanted to be able to share my story on a wider scale,” Coombs said before the Here and Now tour hits the road this October. “I wanted to be able to make a connection with other survivors and help them share a story. Initially the story was how a cancer diagnosis can positively affect your life. I know a lot of people would think that’s a strange way to look at it. One of the ways I tackled my diagnosis from day one was to be as positive as possible.”
Coombs has always fancied himself the type of guy who uses humour to break the ice of awkwardness or tense situations. His standup incorporated with his own retelling of his impactful story deals with the at times taboo subject of cancer with grace as well as levity.
“I wanted to be able to tackle a taboo subject,” he says. “In comedy there are many taboos. Words are very powerful. Just the word cancer in and of itself elicits a reaction in somebody. To approach it from a humorous standpoint and wrap comedy around it from my perspective, that’s the way I’ve always kind of approached things in life. Like the Barenaked Ladies lyric where they say ‘I’m the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral’. That’s me. I usually deviate toward humour to get past the awkwardness of a situation.
Mountain to climb
“Everyone found that it struck a nice balance of drama and laughter,” Coombs adds of the production. “Just as it was getting deeply personal there’s a nice left hook of a unexpected laugh that just breaks that tension. And you know comedy is rooted in truth. I remember a lot of comedians that I’ve worked with. One of the comics one time likened it to pulling back on an arrow with a bow and a quiver. You create that sense of tension in the moment and you need to know when to release at the perfect moment to get that reaction out of the crowd.”
Coombs has worked diligently with the Arts and Culture Centre as part of the Arts Connector program, building partnerships within the health care sector, developing accompanying workshops to connect with the tour that focuses on fellow cancer patients, survivors and caretakers, revolving around the creative process as a healing practice.
Above all, Coombs hopes Here and Now helps others cope with the realities of a cancer diagnosis, and above all, appreciate and savour the little things so many of us take for granted.
“The further you get away from the tragedy things normalize but at the same time you realize too that it’s not the momentous big mountain that you have to climb. It’s all the little smile things that I’ve touched on before. It’s the smell of your daughter’s hair, cuddling up and reading a book in bed and learning to appreciate all those small little moments. It sounds easy but it comes with a challenge.”
The Here and Now tour kicked off on October 25th in Labrador West and runs until November 18th in Corner Brook. Tickets and dates available at artsandculturecentre.com