Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

It took a lot of cancer to write these jokes

Steve Coombs's comedy career was just taking off. Then he was grounded with a cancer diagnosis.

I got a 15-minute set out of my vasectomy, just imagine what I could get out of this

Steve Coombs's comedy career was taking off. Then he got cancer. (Darryl Murphy/CBC)

I've been a standup comedian for a little over 10 years now, and if there's one thing you learn quick, it's that words are extremely powerful.

Even the smallest of words. Like the c-word. It can really put an audience on edge and make your skin crawl.

I'm talking about the c-word that's usually whispered when referring to someone we know, along with the ingressive phonetics people in this province are famous for.

"Did you hear about Bob? Yuh. Cancer."

Dropping a c-bomb can turn the tone of a room on a dime.

Imagine when it's dropped in your lap. How do you react? How do you let it empower you?

I did with another c-word: comedy.

Steve Coombs has a snuggle with his wife after his surgery. (Submitted by Steve Coombs)

Along came cancer

I was a 35-year-old database analyst with a young family when I found standup comedy after trying an open mic comedy workshop with the St. John's Comedy Festival.

I was immediately bitten by the bug. I remember that first night connecting with the audience through laughter. It was one of the best feelings in the world!

I started performing regularly at local bars and eventually along came Yuk Yuks.

Steve Coombs performs at Yellow Belly in October 2017. (Submitted by Steve Coombs)

Before I knew it, I was doing regular professional weekends and getting booked for private gigs, events and touring. The opportunities were getting bigger and I was taking my comedy career to the next level.

But along came cancer. Yuh.

Suddenly, I was faced with the possibility of saying goodbye to my wife, my two little girls, my friends and family, and having to tell my parents they'd have to put another child in the ground.

I could curl up in the corner and die … or I could face this thing head on.

Comedian Steve Coombs managed to find the funny in cancer. 5:35

What about Disney World?

Propped up in a hospital bed, I looked at my wife and said, "I promised the girls we would take them to Disney World!"

Coombs, seen here with his daughters, wrote his first cancer joke from his hospital bed. (Submitted by Steve Coombs)

I wrote my first cancer joke in the emergency room. I had been fasting for 12 hours and was finally able to eat. They gave me the best worst day-old roast beef sandwich in the world. Yuh.

"Want to make hospital food taste good? Just add cancer!"

After that, I kept my phone by my side, texting myself jokes every time I thought something was funny.

If I could get a 15-minute bit out of my vasectomy, I should at least get an hour-long Netflix special out of cancer.

Wanting to communicate and connect

I wrote jokes because I wanted to share my perspective and help anyone else who might be going through the same thing. I wanted to communicate, to connect, to be vulnerable.

I wanted to shed light on the mental fallout of cancer and how there needs to be just as much focus on the psychological recovery — if not more — as well as the physical.

There's no road map to navigating cancer and we all know how hard it is sometimes, especially for men, to pull over and ask for directions.

Coombs and his family conquer the corn maze at Lester's Farm in St. John's. (Submitted by Steve Coombs)

There is an expectation for survivors to have a different perspective on life after cancer. Certain fears should no longer carry as much weight.

Like my fear of strange dogs. Which did go away … until I read a magazine article about cancer-sniffing dogs. Now every time my morning walk is interrupted by an unleashed canine, I'm left wondering whether its nose was in my groin because it detected a metastasis.

In the here and now

The laughs helped me heal and writing the jokes helped me start writing the next chapter of my life.

Steve Coombs celebrates a milestone: his daughter's first day of kindergarten. (Submitted by Steve Coombs)

Performing cancer jokes for the past three years in my sets helped me grow as a survivor and as a comedian. Learning to find the funny in facing my mortality, grieving my own illness and dealing with survivor's guilt helped me stay out of the darkness.

It helped me lend a voice to those who didn't get that chance, like my sister. She was 29. She was a wife, a mother. She was young. She was beautiful. She was my hero.

Steve Coombs's sister, Ann-Marie Tibbo, waltzes with their father at their cousin's wedding. (Submitted by Steve Coombs)

Joking about the c-word helped me come to terms with where I am in my life right now.

So where is that?

I've learned to live life to the fullest … to appreciate every moment … to try not to look too far ahead.

I'm still here for the milestones. I'm watching my little girls grow up and knowing how lucky I am to be doing it.

Oh, and Disney World?

It really is the most magical place on earth.

Cancer wasn't the only roller coaster Coombs took on since his diagnosis. (Submitted by Steve Coombs)

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About the Author

Steve Coombs is a stand-up comedian in St. John's.