Cancer can be a laughing matter, says Lana Schwarcz

Lana Schwarcz bears her soul ' and more ' in Lovely Lady Lump. Picture: Colin Page
Lana Schwarcz bears her soul ' and more ' in Lovely Lady Lump. Picture: Colin Page
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As a redhead growing up in Melbourne, it was impressed upon Lana Schwarcz that she’d get skin cancer if she wasn’t careful.

Then she got breast cancer instead. “At the last second, surprise!” she quips. Despite having Eastern European Jewish ancestry, which increases the risk of breast cancer, “it wasn’t on my radar”. Cancer, it seems, had given her “the old bait and switch over 40 years, which is a really long set-up for a gag. Cancer thought it was a bit of a stand-up, which was all I needed.”

Oddly, it was Schwarcz’s depression that probably saved her life. Walking her dog in a park just outside Melbourne in early 2014, she was stopped by a random stranger, a breast cancer survivor who implored her to get a mammogram. She thought little of it until three months later, when, undergoing a crisis of confidence about her latest show, she was visiting her GP about her mental health and decided that she may as well get screened. It was something to tick off her “to do” list. Fortunately, when the bad news arrived, the tumour in her left breast had been caught early and it immediately snapped her into focus. Finding blogging about her treatment cathartic and well-received by others, she resolved to write a show in order to spread the message of her guardian angel.

Tig Notaro, Des Bishop, Andre Vincent, Alistair Barrie and Beth Vyse are just some of the stand-ups who have performed impactful shows about coping with the disease (Vyse is reprising her 2015 show this year). “I was telling myself, don’t write a show” Schwarcz recalls. “It seemed like such a cliché – comic gets cancer, comic writes show about it. But [the treatment] takes over your life. I was going out in the evenings and doing stand-up just to keep myself sane.”

The result is Lovely Lady Lump, which recently won an award at the Ottawa Fringe. Cancer sufferers who’ve caught it have been overwhelmingly positive about it she tells me from Canada, even if “thrown back” into their own treatment by its realism amidst the theatrical set-pieces, which included her recording and sharing the sound of her radiation machine. The stand-up, playwright and puppeteer has drawn on her skillset for 70 minutes of song, dance and humour, featuring oestrogen as a shadow puppet, cancer as a hack comedian and bare breasts from the start. “I’m constantly taking my dressing gown on and off “she says of the nudity, which she uses as a screen on which to project her medical notes. “I address the audience with bare breasts at the top to basically say ‘guys, get used to this because it’s going to happen throughout’. I’m a feminist but I was scared when I first started doing it, it wasn’t necessarily empowering but it did reveal my vulnerability. It also recreates how during treatment you go in every day and a different person looks at your breasts, touches them and jiggles them about. You have to be OK with that and you learn to be OK with that.”

She speaks glowingly of the state healthcare she received in Australia and is adamant that countries like the UK and Canada should never relinquish their public systems. “I haven’t even looked into touring this in the US” she admits. “I think an American hearing my story would be like ‘yeah, well, pray for us ...’”

Schwarcz says she’s confident in pitching her show to anyone whose idea of a fun afternoon might not involve life-threatening disease. But she’s wary of upsetting Edinburgh residents with the Scottish accent she’s invented for her art therapist.

“There’s no relevance to the accent,” she laughs guiltily, “other than I stick the boot into art therapy and oncological massage and I wanted to separate them from the people they’re based on. To ask a person who works in the arts to make collages out of home and gardens magazines when you only have two hours of energy a day is extremely irritating. And she just comes to life more with that voice.”

She’s hoping to learn some Scottish euphemisms for breasts beyond her default label of “norks”, which features on the merchandise she’s created to help fund the show.

Clear of cancer for two years, she “absolutely loves” performing Lovely Lady Lump, but is in two minds about how much longer she wants to recreate an experience that prompts “a little internal cry every night. I don’t know whether it’s damaging me or I’m getting stronger for doing it.” She chuckles. “I just turned 43, so how long exactly do I want to keep doing this show and exposing my breasts at this age? There’s a big part of me that wants to move on and do other stuff. That whole thing of ‘I am not my cancer’, you know?”

• Lovely Lady Lump is at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, 3-29 August