9: Julia Sweeney

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Ira Glass

OK, here's something that most of us would never, ever do. When Julia Sweeney's brother got cancer, and then she got cancer, she decided she wanted to talk about it with strangers from a stage in a comedy club. After the worst of all these times was over, she turned some of these stories into a one-woman show, which became a book and a movie.

But there's something about these original recordings that she made. During the same weeks that some of the most horrible things that can happen to a person were happening to her, there's something about these recordings which is just very remarkable. Her feelings are right there on the surface.

There's this saying that comedy equals tragedy plus time, which isn't always true but is mostly true. And in this case, there is just no time, right? Sometimes you get the feeling when you hear these recordings that she's talking about these things for the very first time with anybody. And it's from a stage.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. This, of course, is your weekly program documenting everyday life in these United States through whatever means and tactics seem necessary. And of course, most weeks, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme, documentaries, monologues, found tapes, occasional radio plays, anything we can think of.

But today, what we're going to do is devote the entire program to just one thing, to this very unusual set of comic monologues. Today show's is going to proceed in two acts. Act One, Julia's Brother Gets Cancer. Act Two, Julia is diagnosed with cancer herself and gets treated. These recordings were made between October of 1994 and August of 1995 at a regular weekly comedy show called Un-Cabaret in Los Angeles, run by Beth Lapides and Greg Miller.

Un-Cabaret started off as this kind of experiment in reaction to the predictability and lowest-common-denominator mentality of a lot of stand-up comedy. The rules of Un-Cabaret were that no comic was allowed to tell a story that he or she had ever told on stage before. So spontaneity was just built into the structure of it. And the way it would work is that every Sunday night, back in its early days, five or six people would go up, often with notes in their hands, onto the stage, and then do this thing that was somewhere between traditional stand-up and diary and a kind of reportage. It had its own very particular kind of feeling to it.

Some quick caveats before we begin. These tapes are made from the soundboard at Un-Cabaret. And so the sound quality isn't always the greatest. Also, sometimes you're going to hear laughing and off-stage comments during the monologues. And these are from the MC and ringmaster at Un-Cabaret, Beth Lapides.

Some things you should know about Julia Sweeney before we start that she refers to in these monologues. She was in the cast of Saturday Night Live for a while. She's best known for a character named Pat. And the joke with Pat was that nobody could ever tell if Pat was a man or a woman. And there was a Pat movie, which, as she refers to, didn't really do too well.

Act One: Julia's Brother Gets Cancer

Ira Glass

So to these tapes. This first bit is from October 23, 1994. And you know how part of being sick is dealing with everybody in your life when you're sick? A lot of the stories that Julia Sweeney tells about cancer are basically just stories about her family. Her brother moved in with her when he got cancer to be near the cancer treatment center very early in his illness. And then her parents moved in soon after that.

Julia Sweeney

OK, my parents are staying with me this week. And when I say this week, I mean it's just the first of many weeks. They keep saying, "Now, we've got to start planning the Thanksgiving dinner." And then my mom goes, "Why are you crying?" And I go, "Oh, my eyes are watering. I have this weird problem with my sinuses." It's a special feeling to be in your mid-30s and have your parents moving in with you.

I haven't revealed why my parents are here for so long until this time. And I'm trying to think very hard about the most hilarious way I can get this across. Oh, please be with me tonight. All right. So briefly, there's five kids in our family. I'm the oldest. And my brother, who's the fourth child, got lymph cancer. Hold for laughs. And it's a very tragic, terrible situation, although he's doing very well. And he is at the UCLA Cancer Center. And every day, he has radiation, and every other day, he has a spinal tap and spinal chemo. And every three weeks, he has the big chemo.

So all you need to know about this is that I am with my parents, but in a very trying situation where I can't really yell at them for the small, annoying things that they do-- which I would do normally-- because of the largess of the total situation. And yet, for you, I can kvetch a little bit. All right.

So anyway, suffice it to say, we're at UCLA Cancer Center every day for several hours. My mother-- who is, by the way, the same age as Dustin Hoffman. They were born on the same day. Keep this in mind. Every time we get on an elevator, she acts like it's a miracle invention that she's never encountered before. And you can imagine how many times we get on elevators in a given day. Many elevators. Every time I get on the elevator, even if it's just she and I getting on the elevator, I immediately push the "door open" button because it takes so [BLEEP] long for her to get in the elevator.

And every time, she goes, "Oh, oh!" when the elevator arrives. And then I go in and push the "door open," and then she goes, "Oh!" And then she takes a moment before she goes over the chasm between the hallway and the elevator itself, that little metal thing. "Hurry up because the doors are going to close automatically!" God!

And then, she always get in, and then she looks up like, "Oh!" And then when we go, she goes, [INAUDIBLE GESTURE] And then when they open, she goes, "Oh?" It's like, I really don't think Dustin Hoffman does that. And how many millions of times have we been on elevators together? A billion.

So the other thing is, my mother, she's from that generation that thinks that you would never get a second opinion about anything because doctors know everything. And also, she believes that all doctors have the same amount of knowledge in every area. So we're talking to the lymph specialist, and then we'll be walking down the hall, and there'll be a group of doctors. We know because they're men. And they're not rushing around looking very caring. That's the signal. And then she goes, "There's some doctors. Go ask them if they know about lymph cancer."

And I go, "We're talking to the lymph cancer specialist in the country. I think he knows the most about lymph cancer. I don't know what these doctors do." And she goes, "Well, I got the home phone number of Dr. Nishamura, my old OB/GYN. And I was thinking you should call him and ask him about Mike's condition." So I go, "Mom, I really don't think a gynecologist who's been retired for 20 years is going to know that much about this."

OK, but you wonder, what's Dad doing? He reads. He just buries himself in reading. And then, my dad is a diabetic. Hmm, weird. And then my brother, who is now living with me also, he gives himself shots every day for his blood counts. And so there's just syringes hanging around my house. And so a common thing for me is like, "OK, who left their syringes on the kitchen table? Dad? We have to throw them away and break the needle." All right.

OK, so this is all an introduction to last Thursday. And then I get to the The Pope, so just wait. OK, so we're in the doctor's office. And Mike, who's doing really great and is responding really well to the treatment, but he's had so many spinal taps that they can't get into his spinal column anymore. So the doctors come in. And my dad's reading about the plague in India, because that's a good diversion. And my mom is looking at the doctors and saying, "Now, he looks single." And this doctor comes in, and he says, "Michael, we can't get into your spinal column anymore. So we're thinking about putting a shunt in your head."

And my brother goes, "What?" And he goes, "A shunt." And I go, "A shunt, like an artificial opening to the brain." And Mike goes, "Well, where would this shunt be?" And the doctor goes, "Well, the best place we've found is to put it in the forehead." And Mike goes, "If you think I am going to get a faucet put into my forehead. I'm already 90 pounds and I have no hair. I am not going to walk around for a year with a faucet sticking of my forehead." And my mom goes, "No, I think it's more like a spigot."

And then the doctor goes, "But the people we know, the patients that have the shunt, they love it. Oh, they thank me for it because the pain is so much less, and when we do the operation, because it's in the brain, there's no pain." And my brother goes, "Oh, that's because you give them lobotomies before you put the faucet in!" And then my dad's looking up from his article on the plague.

Anyway, as you can imagine, I got a little depressed that [INAUDIBLE]. So Thursday night, I decided that I wanted-- because, as you may know, The Pope wrote a book, and it came out on Thursday. So I had to be right there to get it. And also, I wanted to get away from my home. So I get into my car, and I'm driving to Book Soup, and sadness, the new current trend in thinking, overtook me.

And I had no makeup on, a little lipstick, and overalls, which are not a good choice for me. And I looked terrible, but I though I'd go to Book Soup. And then I started crying. And I started thinking, oh, why, why, why? Why can't it just end? I just don't want to go on. And if I am going to end and I really am just going to be over, why can't I smoke? Because who cares if I get lung cancer? I'm not going live that long to even have lung cancer. So I'm going to buy some cigarettes. Yes! I'm going to buy a cigarette and I'm going to smoke it. And I'm going to go to Book Soup and I'm going to buy that book from The Pope.

So I'm sobbing and sobbing. So I get to Book Soup. And I kind of wipe my eyes, and I they're all red and everything. So then I go in, and then suddenly, I'm kind of seized with a moment of embarrassment-- for some reason that I don't understand, since I get embarrassed continually throughout the day with no problem, apparently-- about asking for this book that The Pope wrote. So I come in and I kind of scan the bookstore out to see if there-- I was looking for a big 10-foot cutout of The Pope with his hands out and the book. There wasn't one.

So I had to go to the information desk. And I go, "Hi, I'm looking for a book that came out today." And the guy goes, "Oh, jeez, it's right over there." And I'm thinking, "The Pope's doing some business on these books." So I go over to this area, and it's that Resnick Nicole Simpson book. So then I go back, and I go, "No, not the Resnick book. The Pope. The Pope's book." So I go over and I get the Pope's Book, this book. And then I think, oh, I don't really want to just buy The Pope's book.

So somehow, I end up in the self-help section. Hmm. And I'm looking at titles like Can You Live Through This? and You Can Make It and Why Do Things Happen to People and stuff like that. And then finally, I find this book-- oh, I wrote down the title. It was An Atheist's Guide to Getting Through the Day. There is a tomorrow. I thought, that's the book for me.

So now I have The Atheist's Guide to Getting Through the Day and The Pope's book. And I'm thinking, all right, I think I'm covered. And there's not very many people in the book store, and I keep having to remind you how awful I look. And all of a sudden-- now, this is the most embarrassing thing I'll ever say at Un-Cabaret-- without any warning, I let out the biggest fart. And I am not someone who has any problem with that. And I also find no humor in that kind of humor. And it's like a whistle has gone off at Book Soup. It's just like everyone looks up. And then I don't how whether to rush out of that area or look around or-- it was terrible.

OK, so right at that moment, this guy comes up and goes, "Julia?" Like, "You heard my call. You recognized my fart." Anyway, I don't recognize him at all. And I go, "Hi." And he goes, "Oh, you don't recognize me, do you?" And I go, [MAKES UNCOMFORTABLE SOUNDS]

And he goes, "Marshall from The Groundlings." And I go-- who I have no memory of-- "Marshall, oh, Marshall. Here I am. I'm getting the Pope's book. How are you?" And he goes, "So hey, when's the Pat movie coming out?" Big, red eyes. OK, here's my standard response. "They opened it in Houston and Seattle, and nobody went or liked it. So, I don't know."

And he goes, "Oh, so it was a bomb." And I go, "Just because no one saw it, that means it's a bomb? It's a hit to me." And he goes, "Oh, well anyway, I'm sorry." And he goes, "So hey, how's Steve?" And I go, "Oh, well, we got divorced this year, but amicably. And really good friend. He's seeing someone, and we talk every day."

"Oh, no, you guys were the cutest couple."

"Yeah, well."

And then he goes, "Oh, is your brother still running the box office at The Groundlings?" And I go, "Well, no." He goes, "Oh, what's he up to?" "Well, he's got lymph cancer. Stage four. And so, well, I'm going to go pay for my books."

So I put back the atheist book, because I really thought my book is really The Agnostic's Guide to Getting Through the Day. I have a little hope. Not a lot. OK.

So I go out, I go across the street, I buy a pack of cigarettes. So now I'm really going to enjoy myself. I get into the car. My family uses my car all the time for transportation purposes. It's the normal use of a car. And they hate cigarette smoke, like anyone should. OK, so I roll down all the windows, and I'm smoking, and I'm actually starting to feel better because Marshall was just such a horrific situation that you could only feel better. You just had to go up.

So I'm smoking, and I'm really happy. And then finally, I'm getting close to home, so I throw the cigarette out. And then I keep driving, and all of a sudden, I smell this really smoky smell. And then I pull into the driveway, and I turn around, and my back seat is on fire. The cigarette has flown back into the car and had ignited my seats in the back. So I get out of the car, and I throw the cigarette out, and I'm feeling very like a girl who's just been smoking pot or something going into the house.

Oh, which by the way, the prescribed pot for my brother, so my brother's also just smoking pot all around the house all the time. So I go in, and as soon as I get in, my mom goes, "I want to use your car keys. I have to go to the store and get something." And I go, "Oh, god, you can't believe what just happened to me. I was driving down Sunset, and this old man smoking a cigarette threw it out of his car. And I noticed, because I thought, smoking is terrible. And I got back, and the cigarette had landed in my car and burnt a hole into the back seat.

And my mom's like, "Oh, that's the most horrible thing I've ever heard." And she's going, "Now, an old man was smoking next to you? And I'm like, "Yes, right next to me. Well, on the passenger-- I had the passenger window open where he would be on the other side of the-- because-- yes. And I noticed him, that creep." And so she goes, "Oh, that's so horrible." So she takes the car and goes.

And then the next morning, my dad and mom are coming out, and the cigarette that was the culprit was on the driveway. And my dad looks down. I go, "Well, there's the cigarette." My dad picks it up, and he goes, "There's lipstick on it." And I go, "Oh!" And my mom goes, "You said it was an old man." And I go, "Well, Sunset Boulevard, you know."

Ira Glass

That was Un-Cabaret in October of 1994. Julia Sweeney's next turn at the microphone-- this next one that we're going to hear-- was three months later, in January of 1995.

Julia Sweeney

My parents are staying with me. I know I say that every week since September because that, in fact, is practically the case. Anyway, my parents are here because I have a brother who is very ill with cancer. And I don't know if he's doing well or not anymore. But he is very, very ill. So my parents are down. And like any stressful situation, their annoying qualities, their personalities, are heightened because it's a crisis situation. And it's made even more difficult for me because I can't yell at them about it because we are in a crisis. And it's like, how could I really scream at my mother for talking incessantly when her son is so very ill?

So Wednesday night, I go out. And my brother, he weighs 120 pounds and he's 5' 11''. And he's taking lots of drugs, and we don't know if it's for the cancer. And we don't know if we should yell at him about the drugs, but then he has cancer, so you don't really want to get down on someone at that moment for that. Anyway, OK, this is just so sad. I am going to try my [BLEEP] hardest to make this funny, all right?

So I go see House Guest because I'm going to see Phil Hartman next week, and I want to have seen it. Although now, I probably shouldn't have seen it. I kept thinking all the way home, what are the scenes I can say you were funny in? Which scene? And he's a very funny guy, so it's too bad, but I guess it's making money. And the whole time I was watching, I was thinking. "Pat doesn't get a national release and House Guest gets a national release?"

So this is my Wednesday. So I get home from House Guest, I walk in the house, my brother is laid out on the couch. Literally, he's laid out. He's laying there with his hands on his chest with blankets over him, like, has Mike died while I was at House Guest? Does someone come rushing up to me and saying, "We don't know which coroner to call." I go, "Oh, Mike."

And he's like, "I'm feeling better," And I go, "Oh, and you look great." And I go in and my mom intercepts, and she goes, "Oh, hi. I'm so glad you're here because I was wondering how House Guest was because I like Sinbad. And I like him because I watched him on TV. And the TV in the living room doesn't coordinate with the cable anymore. And I don't know how to change that, because I want to watch a movie later. And the movie's on a video. And I don't even know how to put the video into the machine. And I was going to try, but I was making some soup, and the soup started boiling over, and your father is too drunk to deal with it."

OK. I go into the kitchen. My dad's standing in the kitchen with his drink. He goes, "Hey, how was House Guest? Because I like that Phil Hartman." And I go, "Oh, it was OK." And then my mom comes running in. She goes, "There's no cat food. there's no cat food." And I notice that all the cats are like, "meow, meow, meow" under my feet. Oh, also, the other thing is, having your parents in your house-- if they're like my parents-- means having every available audio device going in every room. The TV is on in every room of the house that there can be TV, and if there isn't a TV, the radio's going on in that room. So there's just this sound everywhere. And then "meow, meow, meow" of the cats.

So I go, "There's no cat food?" And she goes, "I was going to go to the store and get some, but then I didn't know what kind because you said the Friskies had too much fat in it, and [MOCKING SOUNDS]" So I go, "OK, I'll go to Pavilions now. It's midnight, but I'll go and get some cat food!"

So I leave, and thank God it was three for $0.89. It was a big sale. And there's nothing like being a single woman in her 30s buying $15 of cat food at midnight. That's a really good feeling. So I buy my cat food, and then I get home. And in the meantime, my dad goes, "The cats were so hungry that I gave them the dry food they hate, and they won't eat it." And I go, oh, and I look down, and the bowls are filled with this dry food they hate that I don't know why I have.

So I go, "OK, well, I'm just going to throw that out." And then my dad goes, "No, I'll save that dry food for later. I have a Tupperware bowl out for it, to put in the dry cat food." And he's got one side of the cat food bowl and I've got the other. And I'm going, "No, no, no. I'm just going to throw it away." And he's going, "No, no, no. I'm just going to put it in the Tupperware." And I'm going, "No, no, no. I am really willing to just toss caution to the wind and throw this cat food away." And he's going, "No, no, no."

And then, of course, we pull it apart. Cat food goes flying all over the kitchen. There's little pieces of cat food everywhere, landing in the soup that's boiling over. And then my dad leans down, and he's picking it up and putting pieces of cat food with the hair and aaaaagh! And then, at that moment-- So I go, OK, I'll just pick up my messages. And then I pick up my messages, and I have a message from my gynecologist at 9:30 PM saying, "Call us immediately. We think you have a tumor."

And while I'm getting that message, my mom's standing there going, "Do you know about a place called House of Blues?" And I'm going, "I'm trying to listen to my messages!" And then the next message is from him going, "Oh, I'm terribly sorry. We've mixed up your results with someone else." So then, I hang up the phone, and I'm going, "Yes, I've heard of the House of Blues."

And she goes, "I love blues and gospel. I just love that. I love that music because I just love Gershwin." I don't even anymore-- like, 10 years ago, I would've said, "Gershwin isn't gospel or blues!" But now, I just go, "Oh, I know. The blues and gospel with the Gershwin. Go to the House of Blues. They got it."

So I get the cat food out, I break it up, I put it down, the cats are happy. The phone starts ringing, my mom's going, "Do you think House of Blues would be under 'night life' in the Yellow Pages?" "I don't think there's a 'night life' section in the Yellow Pages, but look all you want." And it's my sister calling from Japan. And she's like this, [CRYING] "Hi, I'm so glad you answered the phone, because mom and dad want me to pay them that $48 to the National Geographic subscriptions before they get the bill on their credit card, which I don't think is right. So I have written out a check for them for $100, and I'm going to send it to them with a the note saying, 'I don't want anymore dealings with you.'"

And I just go, "Meg, I cannot talk to you right now." And she goes, "Oh, fine!" And I'm just thinking of her in Japan crying about these [BLEEP] National Geographic subscriptions that no one even wants. I, by the way, am one of the recipients. So isn't it great that I have to get the magazine and know all these trauma and subterfuge that goes on getting the subscription to National Geographic?

Then, I realized the most [BLEEP] up thing I was thinking this week is that I've got to get over, somehow-- because apparently, I refuse to go to therapy, but anyway-- is I've always had this thing where, like my mom-- it started with my mom. Obviously, our tastes and everything were different. Like, I would never decorate the way they did, and all of you, I'm sure, feel the same way. But we'd look at furniture, and I'd go, well, I like the dark wood one, and she'd like, of course, the modern. And she'd always go, "Well, when you get your house, you can have what you want in it."

So that was her big thing. Or I'd go, "Why are you yelling at Jimmy"-- my youngest brother-- "this way?" And she'd say, "Well, when you have a child, you can treat him the way you want, but I'm going to--"

So I have this mental thing, like I always am trying to be better than some experience in my past. It's like I'm always trying to have a better house to show-- like, my parents are going to learn how to raise kids better because of the way I treat my cats? I don't think so. But I realize the most [BLEEP] up thing is-- oh, just one other thing.

So my brother, they don't know-- now the cancer, they keep taking tests, and the cancer gets less and less, but he seems to be deteriorating anyway. And now they think it's the drugs. So my mom keeps going, "We need to do an intervention with him on the drugs. And he's not going to listen to me, and he's not going to listen to your father. So we've decided you should do it." I'm like, "Well, can I do an intervention on his answering machine? Because I don't have time to really run over there and do this intervention right at this moment." But I realized I was walking around this week thinking, "You know, when I have cancer, I am going to act so much better."

Ira Glass

Well, long after all this, Julia Sweeney said that after she made that comment at Un-Cabaret, when she herself was diagnosed with cancer, people who had been at the club that night would come up to her and remind her what she said. Like, you see? You see? What do you really say to that? Well, coming up, how to make jokes about your own cancer and actually get laughs, an onstage demonstration. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two: Julia Gets Cancer

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And most weeks on our program, we choose some subject and invite a wide variety of writers and performers to take a whack at that subject. And if you're just tuning in, what we're doing is that we are devoting an entire hour to these unusual recordings-- sort of part comedy, part diary-- about cancer. This is Julia Sweeney recorded at Un-Cabaret in Los Angeles.

We have now arrived at Act Two of our program. In this act, Julia gets diagnosed with cancer herself. And one thing that's interesting about these tapes is that once Julia Sweeney actually gets cancer, the stories get less dark. They are less tragic. There is less trouble in them. This next tape is from May of 1995. This is actually the worst sound quality of any of the tapes we're going to play for you today.

And just one quick word for public radio listeners who perhaps do not watch as much television as many Americans do. SNL-- she refers to SNL. SNL, in this context, is Saturday Night Live.

Julia Sweeney

So about a month ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. Hold for laugh. All right. I wake up debating how and if I should bring that up. But the thing is, it's not life-threatening and I'm totally fine. And you know, in a way, I'm kind of happy for the experience. But my parents, who are staying with me way too long, and at the tail end of when they were going to be with me, then I got cervical cancer.

And so, of course, they wanted to stay longer, which is the last thing I wanted was my parents to stay [BLEEP] longer with me. And then I kept thinking, "How can I lie about my cervical cancer to my parents?" And I'm, like, 35. Can't I just have cancer on my own?"

So I had to get this radical hysterectomy, which now that I'm in this whole cancer thing, radical doesn't mean far out in the medical world. I just want to let you know. Anyway, so then my mom, they just make me more nervous than calm. I really have friends that would be there and make it a more calm experience. But my mom goes, "I am going to be with you for every doctor appointment and every surgery you're going to have." And then I found myself saying, like, "My friends who've had hysterectomies didn't have to have their moms with them. They had their hysterectomies on their own." And I just realized how [BLEEP] weird that is, but anyway.

And I feel I wouldn't have chosen to have a hysterectomy, I guess. But I kind of feel about my reproductive organs like a bicycle that I've had in the garage, this really great bike that I've just never used. But I want to, you know? But I just never had time. And it's a really good bike. And it's in the garage, and I haven't really been maintaining it. It's all rusty now and everything. But it's there, and I bought it. And it's there. I have a garage for it. And now, I feel like fate is saying to me, "OK, we're taking away your bicycle. You can never ride a bike again." And so then you think, "god, I was really going to ride that bike."

But it's not like the end of the world. It's like, well, there's a lot of other things. You can skate. Well, I can take the metaphor forever, but anyway. But young men-- especially at SNL, these young, 22-year-old writers they hire at SNL, they would call and go, [SOUNDING DEVASTATED] "I heard that you were having a hysterectomy." I'd go, "Yeah, well, you know, I don't feel that sad about it." And they'd go, "That is the most tragic thing." These [BLEEP] guys. I'd go, "That's right, because now my worth as a woman has been taken away from me." And they'd go, "Mm-hmm." They don't even realize I'm being sarcastic!

And then, I would meet women-- women aren't that much better-- who would have these big new-age solutions. They'd go, "You know, my friend had cervical cancer, and they told her that she had to have a hysterectomy. And she drank carrot juice every day and did yoga. And now she's had seven children." And I'm like, "Get me to the hospital!" Really? Aaagh!

I'll just do two more little cancer bits before I'm done. So I'm in the hospital. And they save my ovaries, which I guess is a good thing-- I'm learning all about these biological things-- because the ovaries are the things that make you lubricate when you're aroused, which, by the way, is a very important thing. And if I wanted to have a child surrogately, I could have it. So that was fine. They saved those.

But then they didn't know, because I had to have radiation, if it was going to get hit. So they moved my ovaries nine inches up from their normal spot. And then, they said, "Well, if you're really concerned about having a kid with a surrogate, we can harvest 12 eggs now, and we can freeze them for you." And I said, "Oh, OK." And they go, "But the problem is, you have to have the sperm with them in order to freeze them. They can't just be frozen eggs. They have to be fertilized eggs." So I go, "Oh, OK."

And then they go, "OK, so are you married?" "No." "Are you going out with somebody?" "Well, kind of." But you know, "Hey, on Friday, before we see French Kiss, could you just fertilize 12 eggs? You know, I know it might not work out. We're just kind of dating, but--"

So I go, "How many different sperm people can I have?" And they go, "Well, the start-up costs are kind of high, but you could have five or six." So I could have two eggs per guy. So I thought, OK, so now I feel like I have this dance card with 12 eggs on it. It's like, "If you're nice enough to me, you can have one of my eggs."

Anyway, then I just decided that it's just too weird. So I didn't do that. So then the next thing-- this happened only two days ago-- I went into my radiation doctor. And they had to do all these x-rays and MRIs to make sure that my ovaries were out of the way of the radiation. And they cut my fallopian tubes and my uterus is out and all that stuff.

So they come in and they go, "We have some bad news. We've lost one of your ovaries." And I go, "Oh, it died?" And they go, "No, we've lost it." And I go, "You what?" And they go, "We can't find it." I go, "You moved them up 10 inches. Aren't they like here or something?" And they go, "Well, one is there." He goes, "Sometimes, ovaries, when they're cut off from their responsibilities, go traveling." And I go, "That ovary! So caught up with that fallopian his whole life, responsible to that damn uterus." He goes, "Oh, it might show up. And it could just go floating through someday, somewhere." I go, "Am I going to cough, and is the ovary-- should I--"

Ira Glass

That was May of 1995. This next moment is a little further into her treatment-- a month later. And just a quick warning, some of the language here may not be suitable for younger listeners.

Julia Sweeney

All right. Oh, I had my vagina tattooed. It's true. Some people say, you know, "I love Tom." Mine says "aim the beams here." I have a little cancer. So I had to have a hysterectomy, and now I'm having radiation. Everything seems to be fine, and I'm on the gazillionth percentile of making it. But it doesn't mean that I don't have to have eight weeks of radiation. So right now, I'm in the fourth week.

So when you get radiation, you have to get a tattoo on the area that you're getting radiated. So mine's kind of a really sensitive spot. So I was a little scared. But they're saying, "Oh, no. It'll hurt, but who cares" or something like that. "Don't worry. It'll hurt a lot."

So I had to lay there with my pants off. And then they brought in a tattoo artist. There's a person who tattoos you. So this guy, at first, he was kind of smiling at me a little too much, like maybe he recognized me from SNL, but I wasn't sure. And I'm not going to really bring it up. And he's not saying anything. But he gave me that kind of look like, "Hi!" And I was like, "Does everyone who gets radiation get that look?" But anyway.

So then, he's tattooing my vagina. So we're spending some time together. And he's down there, doing it. And I just find it so funny that it was hard not to laugh, but you can't laugh because it has to be a really specific spot. But then I keep thinking, "My vagina is getting a tattoo."

And then, all of a sudden, he's going like this, and then he goes, "I think the best one is when Pat went to the barber." [BLEEP], you know? I'm like, "Yeah, that was a good one too. I think the kicker is now that Pat has cervical cancer, we know what--" This is so personal. I can't even believe I'm telling you guys this, but I guess that's the whole point of Un-Cabaret, even though it'll make you uncomfortable.

So the first half is external radiation, where they beam you from the outside. And then the second half that I start next week is internal radiation. Think about it. OK, so I call it the "dildo of radiation." And in fact, I insist on referring to it as the "dildo of radiation," and the doctors get really upset. Because I go, "When do we start the dildo of radiation?" So I had to go in and get measured, and they had to make this cylinder that fit exactly me and everything.

So then I go, "So this dildo of radiation, will it be vibrating?" And then the doctor goes, "Actually, it will be vibrating." And I said, "It will?" It's sick, because the light in this doctor's eyes when he talks about how this is the cutting edge of technology, it scares me because I really feel like that's the point of it is that they get to do this to me. When they go like, "Yes, you really need that, because this is the cutting edge of technology and hardly anyone's gotten this and we're really working on it!" Do I really need it?

Anyway, so I have to go. So then last week, they're trying to prepare me for it and everything. And they go, "Well, you know, it lasts three hours." Oh my god, yes! So I go, "Three hours?" And they said yes. And I said, oh. And also, I won't get into details, but the other orifices in that area will also be filled with other instruments for three hours.

And when they said, "You have an option. We can send you to the cancer therapist at Cedars-Sinai to learn visualization techniques, or we can give you an IV of Valium. Actually, I kind of feel bad because they really were trying to push the visualization. So I just went, "I am very good at visualizing. I'm an actress and visualization is my hobby and my expertise." I think when it comes to medical procedures, an IV of Valium is going to work a lot better than thinking about an ocean.

Oh yeah, this is another sick thing that I do. It's not funny, only sick. I have this thing where the clothes in my closet don't know that I have cancer. And if I haven't worn them since before when I found out I had cancer, I have to tell them when I put my clothes on. So I'll put on a dress, and I'll think, "Oh, this dress doesn't even know." And so then I'll put on the dress and I'll think, "Oh, dress. Don't you realize what's happened to me?" And the dress goes, "That's terrible, but you'll be OK."

Ira Glass

OK, well, that was June 4, 1995. Not long after that, Julia Sweeney returned to Un-Cabaret. She was getting her treatment, still. And she was getting her treatment at one hospital, and her brother was getting treated at another hospital. And her case, apparently, was this very rare type of cervical cancer. And it turned out that the one doctor in this world who was studying this particular type of cancer happened to be located at his hospital, not at hers. And so at some point, slides of her cells were shipped over to his hospital. And then they were going to do some procedure on her, so she had to get the slides back so they could do this procedure. And she offered to go and fetch the slides herself.

Julia Sweeney

I didn't know where I was going. All I knew is his name was Dr. Fu. So I go over, and it's not really part of the hospital where the research is done. It's in this other building, and it's all restricted areas. And I just kept going through doors and doors where people were wearing more and more green things. And more people had masks and stuff. And I was knocking on doors. And everyone was so confused about what I wanted. And I'd have to say, "Hi, I'm looking for the Julia Sweeney cancer slides." And they'd all go, "Oh, for who?" And I'd say, "For Julia Sweeney-- me." And they'd go, oh.

And then finally, I found this Dr. Fu's door, and I knocked on it. And this little Asian man opens the door, and it's literally out of a movie. There's books to the ceiling and cobwebs and a little microscope. And he goes, "Yes?" And I said, "Yes, I hear that you have the Julia Sweeney cancer slides." And he says, "Yes." And I go, "Yes, I've come here to pick them up."

And he said, "Oh, what project are you working on?" And I said, "Oh, the Julia Sweeney project." And he said, "No, no, no. I mean what research area are you in? And I said, "No, I mean I'm Julia Sweeney." And he said, "What?" And I said, "Yeah, those slides, that's me. Those slides are me. And I want them. Give them back!"

And he goes, "You're the person in these slides?" He goes, "Yeah, they're right here." He picks up the slides. And I go, "Yeah." And he goes, "You're this person?" And I go, "Yeah." And he goes, "Oh my god." He goes, "I have been getting grants to study this special kind of cancer for 20 years. And only 50 women in the world have been diagnosed with this special kind of cancer. And you're one of the ones I'm studying, and I've never met in the flesh any of the women that have ever had this cancer except for you."

And I said, "Oh." And he's like, "Oh, please come in and sit down." And he said, "Well, how does it feel to have this cancer?" And I said, "Well, you know, I actually have no symptoms. It's kind of hilarious that I just have no symptoms. It seems like all of the problems have been coming from the cure of this, but not from the actual cancer."

And he goes, "Oh, there's only 50 women in the world, and none of them have died from it." And I go, "Oh, you can always hope." And I go, "Oh, great." And he wanted to know if I'd been on birth control pills, because that's what he thinks it was related to, which I had. And he's asking me, "What are your habits?" And I go, "Well, I like to run and ski. Maybe people who run and ski and take birth control pills get this cancer."

And then he goes, "Well, can I take you out for some coffee or something?" And I said yeah. And then we went and had this coffee, and he was just so happy to be with me, like, meeting this woman who had the cancer.

OK, well, then I found out a few weeks later, after the slides went back, that I didn't have that cancer. I had a different kind of really rare cervical cancer, but not that specific kind. And I don't think they ever really told that guy, because this week, he called me up. And he said, "Hey, how are you doing?" and everything. And I said, "Oh, I'm fine. I did all of the surgeries and the radiation. I'm feeling great." And he said, "That's so great."

And then I realized that I was too embarrassed to tell him I didn't have his cancer. I go, "Yeah." And he goes, "Well, I'm really glad. No one who's had that cancer has died. They've had to go through hell, but they haven't died." And then I just had to play into it. And then I realized that I'm so co-dependent that I didn't want him to think that I didn't have the cancer he was studying. I had to pretend. So sick.

Ira Glass

All these stories that we've been hearing began in 1994. And finally, in July of 1995, Julia Sweeney took the stage at Un-Cabaret to announce--

Julia Sweeney

I don't have cancer anymore. I only say this because-- I don't know if anyone was here for other sets where I talked about it-- but I got a little cancer. And I did surgery, and I did radiation. And my last radiation was on Wednesday. And so now I can't say I have cancer anymore, which I have to say, I will totally cop to the fact that I'm kind of missing that, because I just loved not necessarily doing, but having that moment where I could say, "I don't know if you've heard, but I have cancer."

But now I can say, "I am in remission." I guess that's the term, although no doctor has even said that to me. They just said, "All right, you did enough. See you later." I said, "Don't you mean to tell me I'm in remission?"

So on Wednesday, I had to have my last radiation. And it's this kind of horrible ordeal that lasts three hours and is very personally invasive into certain orifices of your body. Imagine. See, for my surgery-- this is how sick I am-- I had horrible abdominal surgery, and it was incredibly painful, tubes coming out of me.

And they gave me Percocet and codeine and everything. And I would be in excruciating pain and not take my pain pills to save them for a day when I'd enjoy them more. That's when my parents were staying with me, and I'd be going, "Aaaaaaa!" And my mother would go, "Take the codeine." And I'd go, "There will be a day when, mixed with a margarita, I will be so much happier."

Ira Glass

Julia Sweeney survived her cancer and turned these monologues from Un-Cabaret into a one-woman show called God Said, "Ha!" Back in the 1990s, it played in Los Angeles, it played on Broadway at the Lyceum Theater. Julia put it out as a book. Quentin Tarantino turned it into a movie that you can still get on DVD.

Anyway, Julia's brother did not survive his cancer. He died two weeks after she was diagnosed. But we thought we'd end our program today with a story from January of 1995. This is taped before Julia knew that she had cancer. And when this was recorded, her brother was still alive, and family was really struggling.

Julia Sweeney

So anyway, this is not even funny. OK, I'll just tell it really quick. I went to another audition. It was actually a meeting. I felt like it went really well, and it was like, wow, this is a possibility, and this is great. And I'm driving back from Santa Monica, feeling so happy for the first time in a really long time because my parents are living with me. And I'm so happy.

And so I walk in the door, and as I walk in the door, I hear my mother yelling at my brother. "You're drunk. That's what it is." Like some sort of awful Arthur Miller play or something. So then I come in, and I go, "Hi." And she goes, "How was your meeting?" And I go, "It was good." And she goes, "Well, your brother's been drinking. And he is D-R-U-N-K. Then my brother-- oh, this story is too sad. I have to stop it.

OK, well, let's just say this. My brother leaves the room and starts smoking pot in the other room. And then my mom's going on and on, and she doesn't know how to tell stories correctly. And I know you're thinking it's a familial trait. But she'll say, "Oh, I have to tell you the most important thing. I went to Pavilions, and I ran into this couple from the Balkans. And your father was reading that book. And then I couldn't find the change for the ten, and then the car, and so--" And I just go, "Oh, huh. When you can't find your change and you meet someone from the Balkans at the store, and why are you talking to people at Pavilions?"

So I just walk out of the house and go to the office where my dad is. And my dad goes, "Oh, hi. I borrowed this book off your shelf-- The Balkan Ghost, which is all travel essays written by this reporter about his travels in the Balkans. And those Balkan people, they're crazy. Did you know about Adam the Impaler, who impaled people?" And I go, "Oh, no."

And then he says, "Oh, and it reminded me of this other book Rebecca West wrote, this great travelogue that was written in 1937 about her travels in the Balkans, and it really foretold a lot of stuff. And do you know that every major war is started in the Balkans?" And we had this nice little conversation. And he's like, "And how was your meeting?" And I go, "Oh, it was really good." And he goes, "Oh, I'm so glad."

Then I come back in the house. Mom goes, "I need to talk to you in the bedroom." So I go-- oh, I'd better go quick because this is so sad-- so I go into the bedroom, and she goes, "Your father is driving me crazy, and I'm leaving him. But I'm not leaving your house, and neither is he." I go, "So what does that mean?" She goes, "It means I am not sleeping in the guest room with him anymore. I need another place to sleep."

And I'm thinking, "OK, the brother from Washington is sleeping on the sofa in my office. I'm sleeping in the dining room. My other brother is in my bedroom. My parents are in the guest room.

And I just go, "Married people who visit me must sleep together. I do not have enough beds for people to break up while they're visiting me. You must overcome your feelings and just sleep in the same bed. Go in after he's fallen asleep, and get up before he wakes up. And don't touch him in the night, but you've got to stay in the room!"

Anyway, so mom sleeps on the couch in the living room. Dad's in the guest room. So we're all in different places. So then, at 5:00 in the morning, I notice the TV pops on, and In a Lonely Place is starting at 5:00 in the morning. Irony. And my mom sits up, and she's going, "What's this?" And there must've been something where I programmed the TV to tape something. She yells from the living room, she goes, "Julie, there's a movie on about a lonely people. What is it?"

It's like 5:00 in the morning, so I go, "Oh, In a Lonely Place. Yeah, Nicholas Ray and great film noir, Humphrey Bogart." And she goes, "You know, he was a drunk. In real life, too." And I go, "Oh." "And Gloria Grahame." Anyway, so slowly, the whole family gets up. And then, all of a sudden, it's me, my two brothers, and my mom and dad. And we all watch In a Lonely Place. This is yesterday morning from 5:00 to 7:00 AM.

Ira Glass

Julia Sweeney at Un-Cabaret in Los Angeles. Lately, Julia has been working on a new one-woman show, that we've actually excerpted on This American Life already, called Letting Go of God. Next month, she plans to put out that show on CD. She's got plans to film that show. There's a book in the works, more live performances, the whole schmear. For details, you can go to her website with the incredibly difficult-to-remember name,


Ira Glass

Today's program was produced by Nancy Updike and myself with Alix Spiegel, Dolores Wilber, and Peter Clowney. Contributing editors for this show, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin and Paul Tough. Production help for today's show by [UNINTELLIGIBLE] January and Seth Lind.


If today's program has made you curious about Un-Cabaret, they have audio downloads, greatest hits CDs, live shows that they are still doing Los Angeles. Details about all that on the web at

Music help for today's program by Jessica Hopper and by the mysterious and elusive [? Rumpety Rattles. ?] Our website,, where you can listen to 10 years of our programs for absolutely free or buy CDs of them. Or you can download today's program and our archives at


WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who believes that radio is not a vast information expressway bringing you news and stories and music.

Julia Sweeney

"No, I think it's more like a spigot."

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.


PRI, Public Radio International.