Like so many people of my generation, I didn’t even want to hear about cancer. Too upsetting. If I saw the word in a headline, I’d scroll down to the next story in the directory. But after I got my diagnosis, I went online to find out about bladder cancer, treatment modalities and the general lay of the land. It was pretty much by reflex — I Google everything — and I knew websites like the Mayo Clinic, WebMD and the National Institutes of Health would be helpful. What I couldn’t have imagined was that a self-styled “ex-comedian,” blogger and trade association executive from New Zealand would help me prepare mentally for what lies ahead.
But the last few weeks have been full of surprises, and not all of them have been awful.
One of the better surprises by far has been David Downs, a cancer survivor who wrote a series of columns for New Zealand’s online magazine Stuff under the standing headline “A Mild Touch of the Cancer.” The headline, typically enough, was a punchline. When Downs was diagnosed, in 2017, he had gone to the doctor with what he thought was a mild case of the flu.
I’ll let Downs pick up the story at that point. In a November 2019 M2 Summit talk in Auckland sponsored by M2 magazine, he recalled:
The day I got diagnosed with cancer, I decided I would write about it because I couldn’t do anything else. I was going to be stuck in a hospital for a week. I wrote a column and I sent it off to my friends at Stuff and they said, ‘Oh, we’ll publish this. Let’s do one a week.’ And I thought, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll do like six or seven.’ I did sixty of them over a year and a half, every week writing a column about what it was like. Sometimes it was pretty bleak. Sometimes it was quite entertaining and funny and the columns have actually now become a book, called ‘A Mild Touch of the Cancer’.
Downs calls them columns. I think of them as blogs; in fact I feel like he’s live-blogging the course of the disease, and that’s exactly what I need to see now. In the United States, the book is available on Kindle (but not in print, which has me seriously considering a hand-held device for the first time in my life). But some of Downs’ columns are still available on Stuff’s website, where I discovered them in keyword searches. I wasn’t exactly in the mood for comedy at the time, but Downs won me over with his wry observations on shared experience.
Like this riff on a common side-effect of the anti-nausea meds you take to combat the side-effects of chemotherapy:
The issue is that the anti-nausea pills are quite ‘constipatory’ (if that’s a word), so I end up taking pills to counter the constipation. So, it’s pills, to counteract the pills, to counteract the illness from the injection which is designed to treat the cancer. The whole process is essentially the same as the nuclear escalation through the cold war – each drug I take requires a bigger drug to act as a deterrent; pretty soon I will be exploding warheads over the South China Sea.
That was in a March 2018 column, by the way, headlined “A mild touch of the cancer: In which David is all zen-like and literal.” (If you don’t see the humor in it, or think it’s very zen-like, count your blessings.)
Downs has quite a varied resume. He describes himself as a “business leader, public servant, consultant, board director, speaker — and genetically modified organism” (a reference to his cancer treatment, which involved genetic tweaking of his T-cells ). While his day jobs have included marketing and a stint as general manager at New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE), he once managed a comedy club; his speeches and presentations (the video above is a fair sample) rely on techniques he learned as a standup comedian.
In 2017, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and took a leave of absence from NZTE; after chemotherapy failed and he was told he had at best a year to live, he enrolled in a clinical trial halfway around the world at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. The experimental treatment worked; in the spring of 2018, he was declared free of cancer; and Downs now “regularly presents and gives talks on his cancer journey and on the power of positive thinking and optimism.”
His 2019 presentation at the M2 summit is typical of his content and delivery. He titled it “‘You’ve got less than a year to live.’ How Being A GMO Beat Cancer.” But it’s less about the GMO treatment at Harvard-Mass General and more about positive thinking, optimism and resilience. All delivered with a generous dose of standup comedy. Downs said:
[…] The first key lesson is that sometimes in life, you don’t get to choose the room that you’re in. The thing you can choose is what you do about it and how you think about it and how you respond. It’s an enormously powerful thing when you really grasp that because it protects that part of you that is the control system. That was the key lesson there. I couldn’t change the room, I could control and change my attitude. I wanted to be very optimistic about about it.
My next lesson for you is that actually some quite good things happen when you have cancer. I remember saying to my mother, ‘I’m going to learn as much as I can and be as positive as I can about my cancer.’ And she said, ‘David, you’re too optimistic. You can’t polish a turd.’ What I discovered having cancer is you can’t polish it, but you can roll it in glitter.
More body function humor. But Downs’ point was serious. “When I first was diagnosed, one of the first things Katherine and I decided was that I wanted to be a participant in my own rescue,” he said. “We weren’t going to sit back and passively let doctors do things to us.” Writing the columns for Stuff was part of that.
Owned by a newspaper conglomerate, Stuff is the most popular news website in New Zealand, according to Wikipedia, with a monthly unique audience of more than 2 million. Downs’ columns struck a chord with readers, and they kept appearing for more than a year while he was in treatment. In time, they would lead to the experimental treatment on the other side of the world in Boston that saved his life. In his M2 summit talk, he shared some of his attitude with the audience:
My story is unique, it’s not the same as everybody’s. My heart goes out to you for what you might be going through at the moment and I certainly know and live it. My story is a bit unique, and I’m certainly not solemn about it. I take it very seriously, but I don’t treat it very solemnly.
There’s something else, too. In writing about his cancer journey, Downs wanted to “be as positive as I could” and share things that would be of benefit to his readers. “And,” he added, “what positive meant to me was, what can I actually get out of this experience? What can I learn? The first thing I learned is that people are really nice to you when you’ve got a terminal illness.” Both in his writing and in his speaking engagements, he has tried to pay that back. Or pay it forward, by reaching out to others who share the experience or who want to be helpful. He said:
What I discovered is that luck has many components. Luck is about hard work and it’s about good friends and it’s about how you perceive life. If you put yourself out there as an optimistic, positive person who sees opportunity instead of challenge, I’m not saying I’m always like that, but in this particular scenario I had decided I needed to be like that. If there was an offering or an opportunity somewhere in the world to save my life, I wanted to be open to it. And lo and behold, it happened for me. I was very lucky to be in that situation.
In Downs’ case, it was a reader who contacted him, offering to help and saying, “I just wanted to reach out to you. I wanted to wish you well. I know you don’t know me, I don’t know you, but I’ve read your columns and I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your story.” The reader turned out to be head of immunology at Pfizer in New York, who got him in touch with the researchers at Harvard and Mass General.
For his audience at the M2 summit, Downs picked up the story again, switching to the present tense:
I’ve still got this major problem on my hands. $750,000 USD for treatment for a cancer that may or may not work and I didn’t have the money. This is where luck kicks in again. This dumb luck is in the form of friends and family because at one point, we thought we were going to have to sell our house. We had no other way of getting money, but we could sell it and get some of the money. But my friends and family didn’t want us to sell the house, they wanted to help us out. They did a Give A Little page [a crowdfunding website in New Zealand], which was amazing and horrifying and embarrassing and humbling, but wonderful all at the same time; this real complex set of emotions.
During the M2 event, Downs was interviewed by New Zealand broadcast personality Dominic Bowden, and two bits from that interview were published along with a transcript of Downs’ presentation. “In the face of adversity, how did you keep going?” Bowden asked. Downs’ answer began with a deadpan remark, but it was illuminating:
Well, the alternative was not good. Right at the beginning, I did feel that pressure of this weight on my mind. The reality is you get to choose your own emotional state. I’m not talking about people with serious mental illness, but most of us get to choose our attitude. It’s enormously powerful.
It actually is one of the few things you can remain in control of when you’re very sick. I’d be at my worst in hospital, feeling absolutely crap. Wiped out, couldn’t move and the thing that made me feel better was, how can I do something nice right now? How can I help someone else? So I’d smile at the nurse or try and make them laugh or whatever. That was my way of doing it. It just gave me that sense of control and purpose.
To a follow-up question, Downs elaborated on how he developed that attitude from the first days of his treatment:
You’ve got to think about the whole system around you; the people, the friends and family. I was talking to another friend who’s been through a similar thing and you’re not one individual. It’s actually much harder for other people to see someone who’s sick or going through tough times.
If you can get yourself out of your own internal mindset and into a mindset of, how do I help other people go through this? How can I make my kids feel better about the fact that I am really sick? How can I make my doctor feel better about the fact that she’s going to have to tell me some really bad news? That’s not being too Pollyanna, but it really does change your mental attitude.
I think the same mindset has carried over to Downs’ advocacy. In a profile that ran in Stuff after he had been in remission for more than a year, free-lance writer Eleanor Black noted that he split his time between advocacy and his day job the trade institute. “Now cancer-free,” she said, “Downs is a walking advertisement for CAR T-cell therapy, which uses the patients’ own immune cells to attack cancer cells.” That’s the same treatment he received in Boston, and he is active in fund-raising for CAR T-cell research in New Zealand. Black puts it like this:
Downs puts his successful cancer experience down to three factors: his natural positivity, his efforts to take control of his situation by learning as much about cancer as he could and his work helping others. These are what he talks about when he is giving inspirational speeches to corporates and anyone who might want to donate money to cancer research.
But it all began in early days, when Downs first got his diagnosis. Black says:
At no point did Downs avoid people who wanted to help, or stop reading up on his illness and talking to people who understood it – and that is key.
“The doctors tell me a lot of people get into illness and they shut down and push information away,” he says. “It ended up being to our benefit that we knew a lot and were optimistic and curious. Some of the things we did early on helped build resilience. For example, being very honest and open and telling everyone what was happening all the time.”
And that’s where I started learning to use the C-word.
Links and Citations
Eleanor Black, “In remission: Cancer patient David Downs working to bring treatment that helped him to NZ,” Stuff, Aug. 18, 2019 https://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/well-good/inspire-me/114807079/cancer-fight-those-who-didnt-survive-drive-david-downs.
David Downs, “A mild touch of the cancer: In which David is all zen-like and literal,” Stuff, March 14, 2018 https://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/well-good/motivate-me/102254783/a-mild-touch-of-the-cancer-in-which-david-is-all-zenlike-and-literal.
__________, “‘You’ve got less than a year to live.’ How Being A GMO Beat Cancer,” M2 Summit, Auckland, New Zealand, Nov. 20, 2019 https://m2now.com/youve-got-less-than-a-year-to-live-my-personal-journey-fighting-cancer/.
[Uplinked Dec. 28, 2022]