'We’re just flesh bags walking around hoping we don’t get hit by a bus'
When Edwin Sammon was diagnosed with cancer at 36, his new comedy show began to evolve. But his dark comedy didn't always find a sympathetic audience
Edwin Sammon: “It’s always framed as ‘Brave man talks about his battle with cancer’. For me, it’s a treatable disease like any other disease. It’s an endurance test. I wouldn’t call it a battle and I wouldn’t call myself brave”
“Spoiler alert straight away.” The Irish comedian Edwin Sammon is referring to the conclusion of his latest stand-up show, Edwin Sammon Vs Cancer. “I survived.”
In September 2013, aged 36, Sammon was diagnosed with bowel cancer which had spread to his liver. It runs in his family. His mother survived it, and her diagnosis meant he and his brothers kept an eye on their health. In 2013, he wasn’t feeling well, looked pale, and had a pain in his stomach. He and his younger brother went to hospital for routine colonoscopies. When the procedures were finished, his brother was already up and dressed while Sammon was kept in a bed waiting for a doctor.
“I kind of knew what was coming,” says Sammon.
He had his entire large bowel removed as well as a spot on his liver, used an ileostomy bag for 14 months, and had chemotherapy and two surgeries.
“My mum came over to the hospital and was all business, like a military general,” he says. “My older brother was the last person from the family to arrive. He came into the room, gave me a hug, and then we all stood there awkwardly, silently. Finally he just blurted out: ‘Well, one of us had to get it.’ And that made us all laugh.”
Throughout his treatment, Sammon continued to perform, scheduling gigs during the window between chemo sessions when he knew he wouldn’t feel too bad. Nevertheless, at some gigs he was so wrecked that he doesn’t even remember doing them. But one remains particularly memorable. When his brother’s colleague, who has since died, was diagnosed with bowel cancer, Sammon performed at his fundraiser in Galway. Between the booking and the show, Sammon had been diagnosed.
“That was the first time I tried material where I said ‘I also have cancer’, and started complaining: ‘Where’s my fundraiser? Where’s my parade?’ That’s probably the most inappropriate thing I can think of: a cancer parade. ‘Here are the second-class children dressed as lymph nodes; beautiful colours, Maureen.’ Anyway, it went down like a lead balloon.”
Sammon laughs the kind of laugh that follows jet-black humour.
“Comedy is all about context and intent, and I really misjudged it there,” he says.
That guilt, however, about surviving a disease someone else didn’t, has stayed with him.
When Sammon joined the Republic of Telly team (the RTÉ2 show was recently cancelled), he grew frustrated by the way interviews he did were immediately positioned as something he couldn’t relate to regarding his experience of disease.
“It’s always framed as ‘Brave man talks about his battle with cancer’. For me, it’s a treatable disease like any other disease. It’s an endurance test,” he says. “I wouldn’t frame it as a battle and I wouldn’t call myself brave.”
Stand-up became a coping mechanism. He tried to remain positive but says there were times when he felt “incredibly scared and unsure. I’d get upset. I found that my emotions were quite heightened. Every song seemed to be written about me. Ads on TV for insurance companies would make me cry: ‘Oh my God, they’re fully covered.’ ”
This rawness of emotion is something many cancer patients can identify with.
“You’re kind of affected by things,” he says. “I thought about my life up to that point and I accepted that I might die. I thought, I’ve had a lot of advantages. I’m white, middle-class, I’m a man, I’ve had a lot of advantages in life already. I’ve been in love, I’ve travelled places, I’ve had good experiences, so if this is it, there’s no point in fighting about it, getting angry about it, because you’re just going to waste time.
“Then I found myself being very zen and calm and peaceful and loving. I had no room for hate or anything like that. I think I probably annoyed people with my attitude sometimes.
“I knew I was getting better when I moved back up to Dublin and I was sitting on a bus in traffic and the sun was setting over the Ha’Penny Bridge. And I remember getting very emotional, thinking ‘Isn’t it great to be alive, to see this beauty in nature?’ Then, within 10 seconds, I was going, will this f***ing traffic ever move?”
He didn’t have therapy when he was going through the illness. Whatever he was feeling, he thinks he expressed it at the time. He admits to anger, but not in a “why me?” kind of way.
“I remember telling my ex-girlfriend, who I’m good friends with, and she was crying down the phone saying stuff like ‘Why do these things happen to good people?’ And I was saying, ‘I don’t know if I’m that good’. But there’s no rhyme or reason to it . . . I’m not a big believer in God anyway. Captain God with the big beard? I don’t really go for that,” he says. “We’re just random molecules, flesh bags walking around hoping we don’t get hit by a bus or killed by a disease.
“Some woman said to me once that cancer is because you’ve lived a bad life. Like you brought it on yourself. I was like, ‘You know I actually f***ing have cancer, right?’. She’s like, ‘Just something to think about’. I was like, ‘That’s a f***ing horrible thing to think about’. Some people were trying to slip me the secret, give me advice; people would come up and go ‘aloe vera’ and give me a wink. Oh right, is that it? Aloe vera? Right so, fair enough.”
Looking back on his experience with the disease, Sammon says it feels like it happened ages ago, although it didn’t, that it feels like a dream, although it was very real, that it feels like a different life, although it is his life. Trialling this show, he was surprised to find the process draining, unearthing the feelings he had.
“I want to talk about it now, do the show, maybe do it in Edinburgh for a small run, but that’s it,” he says. “I want to get on, do a show about how much I like apes or The Golden Girls, who knows.”
What Sammon does say is that he thinks we need less cynicism and more scepticism, less sympathy and more empathy. And maybe laughing about things that often seem very serious is also a good lesson.
Edwin Sammon Vs Cancer is at Whelan’s, Dublin, on February 9th and 10th, City Limits, Cork, on February 18th, and Draiocht Studio in Blanchardstown, Dublin on March 31st