story and photo by janet i. martineau
She got sick then she got better....
At, of all places, the parking lot of L.L. Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, Maine, thanks to a “huge old boot lying there, the pine trees filled with lights in July, the moon aglow, the evening smell of the Earth expelling from the day.
“And with two lemon yellow Adirondack chairs on order,” to be shipped to her Martha’s Vineyard abode for free.
“How could I stay mad.”
Those are the words Jenny Allen used to close her Horizons Town Talk presentation on Tuesday at the Horizons Conference Center, in a 50-minute comedic monologue about her battle with ovarian cancer.
Allen does stand-up comedy in Manhattan, where she lives with her famous husband, Pulitzer-winning Village Voice editorial cartoonist Jules Feiffer, an illustrator and writer with 35 books, plays and screenplays to his credit.
And despite the fact she recalled blazing anger at the doctors who goofed up big time in making the diagnosis and at her husband for his aloofness she resented (“he does not do tender well”), at her crying jags and rages that tested her friends and family for more than two years, today the battle that began in 2005 is viewed with humor.
She is, after all, past the 5-year benchmark that puts people in the cancer survivor category and she loves to work an audience.
When told she had two forms of cancer, she recalled, “I had to think twice about renewing my gym membership.”
Allen’s Saginaw program, a shorter version of a play touring theaters, hospitals and cancer conferences, has a two-fold focus. On one hand it gives support to other cancer patients that what they are experiencing is “normal” and on the other it informs future cancer patients on what to expect.
Tossed in there too is some info on how the rest of us should treat cancer patients.
“Nobody knows what to say so they end up telling you how great you look, meaning I guess you don’t look like a cadaver.”
Some said to her “it is unfair,” to which she said so is what happens to people hit by a tsunami or tornado.
Others commented that “well, there is always someone worse than you,” to which she questions why do we always have to compare things.
Then there was the “you never get more than you can handle” comment, which she does not agree with at all especially in light of people who commit suicide.
And, of course, “everything happens for a reason,” to which she responded “some things just happen for no reason.”
Two of the most remarkable comments she got: “You look great. I was dreading seeing you” and “hello Jenny, I thought you were supposed to be dead.”
So what does she advise? Well, she recalls friends who delivered her dinners unannounced or who gave her colorful scarves (to cover up her bald head head from chemo treatments).
It was nearly a year after she started having abdominal pain that she found out she had ovarian cancer -- discovered only when she had an operation for endometrial cancer. One doctor said the pain was a pulled muscle.
Her four weeks in the chemotherapy suite “was not depressing” because the patients being treated there were pampered “and despite others being bald, I kept wisps of hair. I looked like a dandelion gone to seed.”
Then came chemo through a port, which left her in pain. “There was no pleasing me...the mood swings were like fourth gear menopause. DON’T TOUCH ME!
“It seemed like my husband got new habits -- how he swallowed water annoyed me.”
Before, in their 30-year marriage, she liked that his vagueness toward her gave her freedom to pursue her career in writing essays and interviews for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vogue, Esquire, Good Housekeeping and The Huffington Post.
“But right then I needed an advocate, someone to comfort me.” She realizes, now, the gift he gave her is the one he knows how to give -- he suggested she write a book about fables for adults (“The Long Chalkboard”), for which he did the illustrations.
Her funniest part of the monologue was recounting her week-long stay at a San Diego raw food retreat “just to get away.” -- one where for the first four days she took a cab into town “to detox from detox,” to get a decent dinner.
There was one drink they were supposed to consume that “smelled like baby spit up.” One dinner tasted like wet papier mache. The advocated daily self-administered enemas -- not once for her, thank you.
Two years into her battle she was constantly in tears, “unable to celebrate because I just could not believe I wouldn’t get sick again, checking myself every five minutes for symptoms. I was terrified and it was destroying me. All I did was research, research, research, research.”
And then at the 2 1/2 year mark, she says, things began to change starting with that stop at L.L. Bean while on a trip to see one of their daughters at a camp.
What has always frustrated her about her husband, she says, is his lack of remembering special things in their life together. Just that night he did not recall the family once stopped at an opera house on Stonington, Maine, and she started to cry because he had totally forgotten what she fondly remembered.
And then they went into that L. L. Bean parking lot and both saw that “huge old boot just lying there, and he said, ‘You used to have boots like that one.’ She took in the beauty of the place and the ridiculousness of that boot lying there and Jules remembering one like it....”
The play soon followed and was, and remains, a success.
The lead paragraph in this story is a take on the name of that play, “I Got Sick Then I Got Better,” and is the line she utters in a Centers for Disease Control ad she filmed three years ago and which still plays prime time on many cable stations.
“I even saw myself and that quote on a bus that passed by me once.”
In 2010 she received the “It’s Always Something” award from Gilda’s Club, named in honor of comedienne Gilda Radner who also battled ovarian cancer.