Battling cancer in the public eye

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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Reporter, actor tell their stories

Cynthia Mulligan is being treated for breast cancer. When her blond hair began to fall out she had it cut and went shopping for a wig with her young daughters.

Daniel Stolfi is just getting his life back to near normal after two years of aggressive chemotherapy for acute non-Hodgkin's T-lymphoblastic lymphoma that affected his appetite, sex drive and energy levels.

Daniel Stolfi, writer and performer of one-man show called "Cancer Can't Dance Like This," poses at the Odette Cancer Centre of Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. Photo by The Canadian Press

Toronto -

Cynthia Mulligan is being treated for breast cancer. When her blond hair began to fall out she had it cut and went shopping for a wig with her young daughters.

Daniel Stolfi is just getting his life back to near normal after two years of aggressive chemotherapy for acute non-Hodgkin's T-lymphoblastic lymphoma that affected his appetite, sex drive and energy levels.

And both of them are sharing their cancer experiences in a very public way: Mulligan, as a Citytv reporter in Toronto is blogging and doing television reports as she traverses the medical system and the challenges of undergoing chemo, while Stolfi, an actor, has written and performs a one-man show, "Cancer Can't Dance Like This."

While many people with cancer might be guarded and careful about how much they share, for Mulligan, who was diagnosed in mid-April, it was almost an "instantaneous" decision to speak out about it.

"This is part of my therapy in getting through it, just facing it head-on, announcing it to the world and saying 'this is what I'm going through,'" she said.

"To me for my personality, trying to hide it would make the diagnosis even worse. It would make it feel like it's something that I have to be afraid of, and something that I have to fear, and shouldn't tackle head-on."

People at work were extremely supportive, she said. Indeed, her job played a role in her decision to go public.

"I tell stories about people for a living. I go into their homes and, you know, in news we're very often talking to somebody on the worst day of their life about the worst thing that's ever happened to them. And to me, it would seem incredibly hypocritical of me to not open up my life and share what's happening to me as well."

Stolfi was 25 when he came down with a fever in March 2008. He was initially diagnosed with a sinus infection, but his continued coughing and a sore chest led to X-rays that showed fluid in his lungs, while other imaging showed a tumour about the size of a grapefruit over his heart.

"It was very shocking, very quick sort of thing, because in the end it turned out that the form of cancer I had was a very aggressive form, so it was growing exponentially fast," he recalled.

"Initially I thought I'd just have to put my acting career on hold for a little bit, because I had no idea what was really involved in the whole process. And it turned out to be two years of pretty intensive chemotherapy and a little bit of radiation as well."

Stolfi started writing his show about three months into the situation, and said his first year of treatment was "really rough."

"It was almost at that point where - not to get all dark here - but you know, where death becomes kind of a reality in the sense that I really felt like I may not make it. So for me, I just kind of had a bunch of ideas where if I ever am healthy again, or healthy enough, I just want to put something on stage again, at least one last time," he said.

"I love performing and to not be able to do that ever again would just be - I don't know - it was just something I had to do if I felt better. So I started writing it in my head, because I wasn't really able to write things down; physically it was too tiring."

The show, described as humorous and honest, premiered in May 2009 in Toronto. Stolfi has performed it a number of other times since, and will mount it again July 22 at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts to benefit a cancer centre at Sunnybrook Hospital.

"I kept a journal of all my stuff that was never intended to be shared with anybody and then I actually incorporated the journal into the show," he said, adding that it gets personal and embarrassing at times. He details how he lost his sex drive for a period of time, and also went to a sperm bank before starting chemo in case the treatments left him sterile.

"To go through that sort of process at such a young age is a weird experience. And it actually sounded kind of funny and that's why I kind of put it into comedy."

The reaction to the show has been unbelievable, he said. Someone whose four-year-old has lymphoma was especially grateful, and said it gave them a better indication of what their child was going through. And random strangers tell him he should share it with as many people as possible.

Mulligan has had lots of e-mails from viewers, offering her support and saying that they're happy she's sharing her story.

"I certainly hope to educate people, to make them see what this is," she said.

"I've had many people say to me 'I've never seen anyone have chemotherapy on TV before,' because we shot my first chemotherapy treatment. I think it's important to show what it's like. It's not as terrifying as what we might imagine it to be."

As she proceeds, Mulligan said she's finding out about issues that she can report on in the months to come - for instance, the fact that a shot she needed to raise her white blood cell count cost $3,000. She has coverage through work, she noted, but many Canadians in the same boat do not.

Organizations: Citytv, Sunnybrook Hospital

Geographic location: Toronto

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