RUTLAND, Vt. – Josie Leavitt has been entertaining crowds since the 1990s, but the Vermont comedian’s recent sets have also carried an important message about how patients and their loved ones handle cancer.
Leavitt, 54, is a breast cancer survivor. She was diagnosed in early 2018, and in the following months, she underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. She received the call from her doctor while sitting in a Lowe’s parking lot, where she was planning to pick up materials to re-tile her bathroom to take her mind off of her fears.
“When you find out you have cancer, everything stops,” Leavitt said. “It just slows down. But everything is hyper-focused, and I got this real clarity and all the B.S. just fell away.”
Leavitt’s 75-minute stand-up routine, “So This Happened,” details a year spent updating loved ones on her treatment and struggling to translate charts and numbers into a path forward. Most importantly, it injects comedy and honesty into the discussion surrounding cancer. On Thursday, she shared her story at Rutland Free Library as part of the Vermont Humanities Council First Wednesday Lecture Series.
“We don’t know how to talk about cancer,” Leavitt said. “It’s a risk when you tell someone you have cancer because you want to be supported, and if someone starts talking about how cancer has affected them or their life, they have now hijacked your conversation and now you’re left in a position of comforting them.”
Leavitt said this doesn’t come from a place of selfishness. Instead, she believes people often inject their own stories of cancer into a conversation about someone else’s illness because they keep it bottled inside.
There were other instances, however, where people criticized her over her decision to undergo chemotherapy. She once had to get her car jump-started on a freezing winter day, and said the tow truck driver noticed her bald head.
“He just looked at me and said ‘I don’t think I’d ever do chemo,” Leavitt said. “I’m thinking A, I don’t care, and B, now you’re going to tell me why. Great.”
Her stories aren’t strictly a lesson on how to talk about cancer. Sometimes, they’re just anecdotes about trying to do yoga during treatment or getting out of an exhaustive evening with friends by pulling what she calls the “cancer card.”
Those stories are just as effective as her wisdom when it comes to changing the way we discuss cancer.
“My cancer has not spread, my health is good,” Leavitt said. “I tell you this because I want to give you permission to laugh. You should laugh. I always said to my friends when I was doing stand-up, nothing is better than an invasive procedure when you need new material.”