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Laughing at cancer

BILL LOHMANNNovember 4, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Next Wednesday evening, Steve Thompson will stand up in a comedy club and talk about something profoundly unfunny: cancer.

His.

Thompson, 47, a teacher and coach in Hanover County, was diagnosed this year with stage 4 colon cancer.

“Stage 4 is the worst,” he said. “But I just consider the alternatives. What are you going to do? It doesn’t help to sit around and mope. It helps to get up and move, so I get up and move as much as I can.”

And now you’re going to a comedy club .

“And we’re going to make fun of it!” he said with a laugh.

Thompson will be one of the “stars” of “Here’s Laughing at You, Cancer,” an unusual comedy show at the Funny Bone Comedy Club in Short Pump that features local cancer survivors speaking about their experiences and then an improvisation group from Coalition Theater performing skits based on the stories. The annual event, now in its fifth year, is a fundraiser for CancerLINC, a local nonprofit that provides cancer patients and their families with assistance, education and referral to legal resources, financial guidance and community services.

The organization, which helps about 600 people each year, was trying to come up with a “different sort of event” when it struck upon the idea of a comedy show, which CancerLINC executive director Denise Kranich acknowledges “sounds a little bizarre because it does have to do with cancer.”

But it might not be as far-fetched as it would appear on first glance.

“We talk to so many cancer patients about having a good attitude,” Kranich said.

And what’s better for a good attitude than a good laugh?

Of course, the notion of spending an evening poking fun at a hellish disease and the way it upends lives and families is not everyone’s cup of chamomile, especially for someone dealing with the rawness of a recent diagnosis, and Kranich, a cancer survivor herself, understands that. But she also knows this about the comedy show:

“It’s a little bit different, but it does work.”

The show annually draws more than 150, including many cancer survivors, for whom the irreverent approach can be a welcome gloom-buster. For those on stage, she said, it can be cathartic.

Next Wednesday, the cancer survivors who will be onstage include Isabelle Chasewehner, a law student at the University of Richmond who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia six years ago, Neils Dunn, a seventh-grade math teacher at Salem Church Middle School in Chesterfield County (and musician and published poet) who was diagnosed in 2016 with pancreatic cancer and Bill McGee, of Richmond, a retired school administrator and jazz musician who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014.

Their reasons for participating include reminding others of the importance of timely medical tests and, in general, showing that life goes on.

Comedian Rob Reibold, is the show’s opener, a comedian from Virginia Beach who also is a cancer survivor.

Thompson was recommended for the show by those who have witnessed his upbeat demeanor throughout his treatment. He was surprised, he said, because he doesn’t think he’s done anything special. He wouldn’t know how else to proceed.

He recalled the day his physician told him, after a colonoscopy, that cancer had been detected.

“My response was, ‘OK, can I go home now?’” said Thompson, who lives in King William County with his wife, Lindsay, his daughter and two stepsons. “He said, ‘You don’t understand. It’s very serious.’ I said, ‘I do understand, but if you want me to break down and start going crazy, you got the wrong guy.’”

Thompson is a former soccer player at Longwood University who played a little pro soccer and in recent weeks was inducted into the hall of fame at his alma mater, Gar-Field High in Prince William County. He also served five years in the Navy. He’s been an athlete all his life who was rarely sick and seldom had cause to visit a doctor. The diagnosis hit Thompson hard, but he immediately entered treatment, and he never stopped working.

We talked Tuesday afternoon at Atlee High, where he is the boys soccer coach. During the school day, he teaches adapted physical education at several schools in Hanover County, working with students who have disabilities. He’s used to going full-speed on the job. However, there were days during treatment when he had to heed the calls of his weary body to lie down. Otherwise, though, he was on duty. He’s had to deal with treatment side effects that have included numbness in his feet — an unfortunate development for a soccer coach — and a sense of feeling cold all of the time, which forced him to coach from the warmth of the press box some games, but he’s generally been present.

And he says he wouldn’t have wanted to be anyplace other than working with his students.

“It keeps me going,” said Thompson, who is in his 11th year of teaching in Hanover and in his 21st year of teaching overall.

He’s been teaching adapted PE for more than a year, and he described it as “awesome.” The achievement of students sometimes is measured, literally, one step at a time. But those steps can be huge — and hugely gratifying.

Thompson said people will tell him, “It’s so bad you have cancer,” but he’s quick to say his students help him keep everything in perspective.

“I’m working with kids who from the day they were born have had something against them,” he said. “I get more out of them than they get out of me. They think I’m doing something. I’m like, nah, you guys are the ones doing something.”

He’s not sure what he’s going to say when he stands up at Funny Bone. “Even when I do awards ceremonies, I don’t write anything down. I just kind of wing it.”

He might or might not be funny, but he knows the improv troupe behind him will be funny as they essentially make something of a joke of whatever he says.

“And I’m fine with that,” he said with a laugh.

“It helps people to laugh and get it off their mind,” he said of the comedy show and cancer. “There are going to be a lot of cancer survivors that show up. They might need that, and maybe there will be some new people just got diagnosed, and they’re scared to death, and maybe we can help them get over the bumps a little bit.”

Meantime, Thompson is still on chemo but is doing well. “I’m feeling great,” he said.

Come the spring season of Atlee boys soccer, he expects to be on the pitch again, and in better shape than he was last season.

“I was bad off,” he said. “I was 25 pounds less than I am right now. I was skinny-looking like a skeleton, probably scaring the hell out of the kids. But I was showing them we’re still going to be here. No matter how bad you look, no matter how bad you feel, you’ve got a job to do.

“You’ve got to push through. No matter what life puts in front of you, you’ve got to push through. Or you can give up. I’m not going to give up. I want to just stay positive and keep going.”

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.richmond.com

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