The hardest word I find talking about with cancer is…Hope. Dare I say it?
I had cancer when I was 19 and then again when I was 21. I’ve come out of the bedazzling world of young cancer patient and have set my sights on talking about it. I’ve made a theatre show, The Eulogy of Toby Peach, which aims to facilitate a discussion on cancer and discuss why there is starting to be an element of hope – even if it is the slimmest – with a diagnosis. Cancer is a tricky old thing. It now affects 1 in 2 of us directly and, I expect, everyone indirectly. Recently its been screaming for attention with the deaths of Alan Rickman and David Bowie. So I think we should know what it is, and what, or who, is giving humanity an element of hope.
The strange thing about my cancer though is I that had no idea what it was – before, during or after having it. This was a major moment in my life and I hadn’t a clue. So I began to do some research, by reading The Emperor of All Maladies, the Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, (a light read for the commute home!), and also doing what doctors suggest you never do… putting cancer into Google. I sifted through my memory banks, writing down all the stories I could remember and quizzing specialist doctors on the science of cancer. I was fascinated by it all, the science and the history, but my fascination wasn’t just with the disease that tried to kill me, it was also with the treatments that saved my life. I’d sat there and taken these drugs in but that’s all I’d done – sat. Did you know Cancer was just you? That the battle that everyone seems to face is actually a rebellion? Cancer is just an odd selfie. So who the hell saved me if it was just Toby VS Toby?
All the research and discovery began forming a story I wanted to tell, and so I kicked off The Eulogy of Toby Peach, with the question that I was posing in making it: How am I still here?
From diagnosis to remission, relapse and treatment, the show takes the audience on a young man’s journey with Cancer in an honest, fascinating and inspiring exploration of modern science and the wonders of the human body. The audience joins Toby as he enters the (not so) exclusive Cancer Club. With celebration balloons and a quick selfie, the Cancer Host, the only other character throughout, explains to Toby : “Cancer, it’s just a terrible one man show where you play all the parts”. There’s a chance to sample chemotherapy cocktails at the Sidney FarBar as Toby takes in his cocktail, an Absolute Bloody Vascular Daiquiri (ABVD Chemotherapy). The audience also witnesses the affair between Toby and his IV stand, IVY, who he took heavy drugs with, who shaved off all his hair and who planned his funeral playlist! All of it to work out the answer to the question ‘How am I still here?’
I’ve performed the show to over 1000 people now and have been blown away by the responses, especially from fellow cancer patients. People who see similarities in their journey with cancer and relate to it. I had the chance to perform it for Teenage Cancer Trust’s wonderfully named conference ‘Find Your Sense of Tumour’ and the response from the 300 young people and their support teams was unbelievable. The show has become something more than I could ever have hoped it could be and I feel eternally grateful to all those who have helped me unpick the story to create it. As it continues to grow I want it to reach more audiences and, excitingly, after support from the Wellcome Trust, ACE and the National Lottery it seems we will be able to. This is a show for the cancer patients and their support networks of the past, present and the future. Sadly that means the majority of us.
Hopefully audiences will leave the show knowing what I didn’t; what cancer is, and also knowing why there is an element of hope. In 1947 Sidney Farber started trialing chemotherapy on children with Leukemia. A disease that had no chance of a cure. 62 years later I was diagnosed and was given hope. Humanity has come a long way, and may still have a long way to go, but are we allowed to say the H word yet?
The Eulogy debuted at Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2015, after winning the IdeasTap Underbelly Award and received some wonderful responses from audiences and press. The show is embarking on a national tour later in 2016.