Mind & Spirit
Maureen Holloway's breast cancer story
Mind & Spirit
Maureen Holloway's breast cancer story
So this woman walks into a doctor's office and says, "Doc, I'm heading to the cottage for the weekend." And the doctor says, "No, you're not. You have cancer."
Three hours and much hand-wringing later, the punch line: full mastectomy of the right breast required immediately, followed by chemo and radiation therapy.
"I was like, you know what? Lop it off. Lop 'em both off," jokes Maureen Holloway. [Pause for â€¨effect.] "And they said it wasn't necessary."
Clearly, not even cancer could knock the funny out of Mo, as she is affectionately known to hundreds of thousands of fans across the country.
Holloway's irreverent, acid-tongued take on the Hollywood scene is heard daily on radio stations in every major Canadian city. She has also been a contributor on "eNow" and "Canada AM" and earned a Gemini nomination for her work on "The Dish Show" on the Comedy Network.
Back in May 2005, at the age of 45 and conscious of the approach of midlife, she had already taken steps to protect her health. She'd long since quit smoking, started eating right and signed on with a personal trainer. She regularly performed breast self-examinations and had mammograms to test her healthy pair of C-cups.
But one day, with her arm slung on the back of a chair, a chance brush of her right breast turned up a lump. Closer inspection revealed a growth she could feel and see another visible red one about two inches away – both of which she brought to the attention of her physician.
"I reassured the doctor that everything was fine," she quips.
But two and half months' worth of tests later it was determined that a lumpectomy – the surgical removal of the lump – was required to treat what she refers to as "garden-variety" breast cancer. "I know that sounds really callous," she says, "but my cancer was originally diagnosed as ductal carcinoma in situ, which is just about 100 per cent curable if you catch it in time." (Carcinoma in situ is the term used for early stage cancer that has not spread.)
That stop on the way to the cottage was supposed to be a routine pre-op appointment before the lumpectomy, but Holloway's whole world tilted on â€¨its axis with the much-graver diagnosis of metaplastic carcinoma, an extremely rare and little-understood form of cancer with a disturbingly uncertain outcome.
Indeed, a 2006 report from the web archive of the U.S. National Institutes of Health states: "[Metaplastic carcinoma] represents as little as 0.02 per cent of all breast malignancies. There is a relative paucity of data regarding treatment options and prognosis."
"Nobody should ever have to hear that – that there's a possibility you might die soon but, then again, you might not," she says, adding, "By the way, they still can't tell me."
Page 1 of 4Battling cancer is challenging enough when it's private. But the very public Holloway was expected back on the air bright and early Monday morning. Her employers knew nothing of her predicament.
"I was calm, but I was in complete shock. I had to let everybody know that I was going to be off," she says. And that, she and John, her husband of 22 years, decided, meant everybody – all friends and family, all of his coworkers and every one of the cohosts, producers, program directors and general managers she works with at nine different Corus Radio stations.
By the time she went into hospital later that week for a full mastectomy of her right breast, "I was buoyed on this whole tide of love," she says, "and it really helped alleviate the fear."
At this point, it was only Holloway's inner circle, wide though it is, that knew of her ordeal. With the operation behind her, the vast majority of listeners were none the wiser as she continued bringing the ha-ha to the airwaves every day while signing her personal e-mails "Lopsided hugs, Mo." But then, with a gruelling six-month course of chemo (two kinds) and radiation looming, it was time to bring the public in on her story. This spirited comedienne was not going to let the "C-word" stop her from dishing out The Last Word (as her entertainment reports are called).
Instead of venerating the rich and famous, Holloway exposes their foibles. It's a format she pioneered in the early 1990s while at MIX 99.9 FM in Toronto. The hallmark of her segments is that she treats celebrity news and gossip with precisely the gravitas it deserves – none. A recent example: "Jeff Foxworthy (entertainer and host of the TV show "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?") made $10 million last year. When he dies, he's leaving it all to his widow – but she can't collect until she turns 14."
So on that July morning when she announced her illness to hundreds of thousands of listeners, she had a new target for her scathing wit: herself.
"I said, ‘There will be days where I will be cranky, days when I'll be bitchy, there'll be days where I don't wanna show up – in other words, nothing will have changed." That's the Mo the audience knows. Even though her stock-in-trade is "other people's business" (as the segments were originally called), 24 years on the air means the listeners know all about Mo and John, their two boys, Aidan, 15, and Ronan, 9, her cellphone mishaps and her vacation misadventures. Now they were to share in the hilarity only Holloway could bring to sporting a "giant fake boob" and being "bald as a cue ball," nauseous and thrust into premature, chemo-induced menopause "like someone took me by the ankles and slammed me against a wall."
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Support from strangers
She estimates she got 2,000 e-mails those first few days – and they still trickle in more than three years later. This is the only point in our nearly two-hour discussion when her luminous green eyes moisten as she recalls the outpouring of support from hordes of complete strangers – people she accompanies on the ride in to work each day, whose commutes are made more tolerable by her wisecracks and impossibly infectious laugh.
"I can see where, if you've got [crap] in your life and you hear somebody who's supposed to be frightened and miserable just laughing her fool ass off, you kind of go, I can get through today. So that made people feel great."
In fact, she's not just a purveyor of humour. She is also a student of the craft, who at that very time was working on her master's thesis on women and humour in visual culture at York and Ryerson universities. One of her observations: "The general consensus, up until quite recently, was that women can't be pretty and funny. To be percieved as funny, women had to be fat, aggressive, loud or clumsy." She found that being temporarily stripped of her Irish-lass good looks was "strangely liberating; I could say anything." To any person who might deign question her on that, she takes a hands-on-hips tone and adds: "I can make cancer jokes, 'kay? You cannot possibly be more offended than I would have been back then. And I was, I think, funnier than I've ever been, that year."
A daily dose of morning-show shtick was just as good for the patient: "One of the main reasons I had to work through it is I would laugh every day." But she is careful not to equate laughter with real medical treatment.
"I was aware then and I am aware now that laughter is not going to cure you," she says. "But if you're gonna die, better to go out laughing than spend the last year of life crying about the fact. The end is gonna come no matter what."
Off air, her quarterly MRIs continued, followed by reconstructive surgery (the third and final operation was completed last year). Thanks to all the resulting scars, "I look like a pirate without my clothes on," she says today. Now cancer-free, she can reflect on all the unexpected positives that ultimately turned her "annus horribilis" into a "year of miracles": a solidified marriage, closer relationships with loved ones, a lucrative contract renewal with Corus Radio and a fresh start in a new house where she never has to run to the bathroom to be sick.
She wishes it could be that way for everyone, that "you get a cookie at the end of your ordeal," but has learned that many people – including some close to her – have had their marriages break, lost their jobs or faced other repercussions as a result of illness. She has discovered that, although she hates having her hair long, at least for now she refuses to cut it because she knows what it feels like to go without. She's taken away other valuable lessons. "You just realize that time is fleeting," she says. "You gotta stop saying, ‘Maybe one day.'" For her, that has meant travelling frequently, taking up golf and piano lessons, and giving up "socking away money" for some rainy day she may never see.
"Whatever you're thinking of doing, do it now – not with the idea that you're gonna die tomorrow, but don't be sorry that you didn't."
And that's no joke.
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Humour: The next-best medicine
Maureen Holloway isn't the only one who turned to humour in times of crisis. A leading oncologist, who has endured his own medical scare, says that for most people, humour reduces the scale of a threat like cancer from huge and cataclysmic to manageable or even mundane.
"Humour is a brilliant coping strategy," says Dr. Robert Buckman of the Campbell Family Institute for Breast Cancer Research at Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital, reciting the name of one of the lectures he regularly gives: "Laughter, the Second-Best Medicine."
Buckman, who was named Canadian Humourist of the Year in 1994, at one time faced a diagnosis of dermatomyositis, a serious condition that causes chronic muscle inflammation and weakness and left him incapacitated for long stretches. He recalls laughing heartily at the Italian comedy Bread and Chocolate and being pain-free for several minutes afterward.
Those were the early days of medicine's understanding of endorphins – released into the spinal fluid when we laugh – which he says can allay pain and fatigue and decrease anxiety and stress.
Still, he cautions that there is no scientific evidence that laughter actually cures any disease or even changes its course. He thinks Norman Cousins' widely read humour therapy have done a disservice to patients everywhere, misleading them into believing "Laugh hard enough and your illness will go away."
"There's a huge difference between feeling better and getting better," says Buckman, who is the author of 14 books and a contributor to television and other media. "But it certainly makes every difference to the quality of life and the way you cope and what you can actually do with the symptoms you have."
• Living better through laughter
• 15 ways to live longer
• 9 ways to stop being negative
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