In the months following her double mastectomy almost a decade ago, actress-acting teacher Amy Marcs was too sore for much physical
activity, so she spent her time writing. A journal.
While recuperating at her sister’s home in Westchester, Marcs recorded her feelings about her surgery, her recovery, her pain, her self-image — everything connected with her life-saving medical procedure and its aftermath.
“Through the whole process I was funny,” Marcs says. “I found humor in everything.”
At some point she decided to turn her I-survived-cancer experience into something familiar. Theater.
Marcs, a Five Towns native who now lives in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, cancer-free for eight years, converted her journal into a one-woman show. She started performing it, sporadically, three years ago and has been staging it consistently for the last year.
Laced with humor, the show deals honestly and in unvarnished language with her original surgery and her reconstructive surgery, with sexuality and femininity, with her mother dying at 51 of the same disease, with people’s reactions to her new status as a cancer survivor, with mortality and with her appearance.
“I had a great body before,” she says. At 5-foot-1, she had, according to her website, “a great rack.”
And now, post-surgery, she is, by her own admission, no slouch in the looks department.
In her “early 40s” at the time of her diagnosis and surgeries, she looks 20 years younger than her chronological age.
On stage, carrying a Barbie doll that symbolizes the culture’s ideal of feminine beauty, she “breaks the fourth wall” between performer and audience, bantering with the crowd, moving them alternately to laughter and tears. “I want to give people hope.”
Though she has improv training, Marcs says he is “not a stand-up” (amymarcs.com). “I’m not a joke teller.” She’s a performer – with a message. “It is my calling. My show is a conversation starter. I get people to talk about the things they’re usually not comfortable talking about. Comedy creates a safe space. It is a release.”
Onstage, she says, “is where I feel the most free.” In her show, both her language and her garb are revealing.
After shows, people tell her they now understand how to tell friends and family about their disease, and how to talk to women (and the occasional man) who have that diagnosis.
The key is humor.
Marcs calls humor “a powerful vehicle [with which] to share important, often serious messages that allows audiences to think about something without being preached at. It’s a great icebreaker.”
Is cancer funny?
“No. It’s not funny at all.
“What’s funny,” she says, “is how I went through it and how I survived it. Comedy has helped me through some very challenging times in my life.
“As much as I love my perfect perky breasts,” Marcs declares in her show, when she talks about her then-impending mastectomies, “and many others have loved my perfect perky breasts … they are not worth my life. They must go.”
Marcs’ show is part of a new trend that introduces humor, as a form of coping, into a very unhumorous topic.
Following the lead of the late Norman Cousins, whose “Anatomy of an Illness” described how a regimen of humor helped him overcome a severe disease of the connective tissue, the psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) movement has shown the place of respectful humor in dealing with a wide range of diseases and physical conditions. Repeated studies have shown the therapeutic value of PNI; while humor does not necessarily affect a person’s symptoms, it plays a major role, often as a form of distraction, in improving someone’s attitude, morale and state of health.
At the forefront of the movement’s attention is cancer, especially breast cancer, once a taboo subject that could leave patients and survivors socially isolated.
While about 1 in every 500 women in the United States has a mutation in her BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene that can lead to breast cancer (or ovarian cancer), the rate among Ashkenazi Jewish women is 1 in 40.
“Everyone,” Marcs says, “knows someone affected by cancer.”
Today, irreverent looks at breast cancer are the subject of books, websites, self-examination campaigns, greeting cards, TV and movie plots — and stand-up routines and one-woman shows like Marcs’.
Stand-up comic Tig Notaro famously sealed her reputation in 2012 when she began a set at a West Hollywood comedy club, after receiving a cancer diagnosis, with the words, “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer.”
Search for books on “breast cancer” and “humor” on amazon.com, and 1,224 items come up.
“Due in part to declining cancer death rates, an increase in the number of support groups and the breast cancer movement, all of which have brought survivors together and affirmed their experiences, along with factors such as an increasing openness in both society and comedy, cancer humor — long an unofficial part of the patient experience — is coming out of the closet,” the Chicago Tribune reports.
Marcs has done her show in venues ranging from small theaters to Hadassah benefits. Profiles of her work have appeared in such publications as Bust magazine and The Lancet medical journal.
Jewish audiences, she says, get her.
“Humor is a real Jewish thing,” she says. “It saved me.”
Marcs said she had a typical suburban Jewish upbringing. Hebrew school. Holiday meals with the family. “I am not devout,” she says. “I’m a little neurotic Jew.”
She says she feels her mother’s spirit when she is performing the play she calls “a love song to my mother.”
Every year she recites Yizkor for her mother.
What would Marcs’ mother think of her one-woman show?
“She would be so proud of me.”