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Comedian Maria Falzone, who is also a lecturer on safer sex, is living in the moment as she faces her final months with advanced bile duct cancer. She told CURE® why she sees her cancer as a gift.
Maria Falzone - PHOTO BY ANDREA STEIN
SOME MAY REMEMBER Maria Falzone from her early appearances as a stand-up comedian on ABC, A&E, Showtime, TBS and HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. But her more recent work has made her an indelible part of the personal lives of tens of thousands of adults. For the past two decades, she has performed her show “Sex Rules!” at hundreds of universities each year, using comedy, openness and warmth to teach students about safer sex.
Now, Falzone, 56, is facing advanced cancer with the same depth of insight she has offered her audiences.
In May 2017, she was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, an uncommon form of cancer that affects the bile ducts in the liver. Two tumors were surgically removed, and Falzone underwent chemotherapy. But during the summer of 2018, the cancer came back. Doctors said that if she had another six months of chemotherapy, she could live for about a year. Falzone chose to forgo treatment and instead make the most of the four to six months ahead of her.
In mid-October, the performer, sporting blue leopard-print hair and accompanied by her dog, Romeo, visited CURE®’s offices for an interview.
CURE®: How have you kept your sense of humor at such a difficult time?
Falzone: It’s who I am. When I went to meet the surgeon I made jokes, and he said, “Oh, my God, you are so refreshing. Most people come in here and they’re morbid and upset.” And I said, “That’s not going to get me anywhere.” That’s not to say that there aren’t moments when I have great sadness or cry, but I just think, “No, you can wait until you’re really sick to have those feelings, but right now you’re alive; make the best of it. You have the energy to enjoy life, so just enjoy life.” I think life is one big joke anyway, and this is the biggest cosmic joke that could be played on someone.
Who are you surrounding yourself with since the diagnosis, and how are you spending your time?
I have a 19-year-old who’s really amazing and just started school at (University of California) San Diego, and I have a brother who lives in Massachusetts. And I am just so blessed to be surrounded by friends. Right now I’m at the Jersey Shore. I invited all my friends to the beach. I rented a house and I said, “If I only have four to six months, I’m not going to spend it going to visit people; you can all come see me.” And I just rented a house out in the high desert of California for the month of January, and all my California friends will come out and visit me there. And a friend of mine just offered me her houseboat for the month of February in Redondo Beach. Also, I just went to Southeast Asia with my brother and celebrated the full moon festival in Thailand, and then I had a stopover in Hong Kong, so my friend from San Francisco flew out to meet me there.
I can say all this because I sold a house and I have all of this money. I saw my doctor on a Friday, and on Monday I was going to put an offer in on a house in California. He said to me, “I’m an oncologist and not a financial planner, but my suggestion is: Don’t make any big financial decisions.” And I thought, “All right, I have half a million dollars to blow in six months.
How can I spend it? I’m just going to travel.” I dropped my kid off at college and I thought, “I’m not going to cry at home. Why not cry on the beach of Thailand?” So that’s what I did. You’ve said that cancer is a gift. Why do you believe that? My cancer’s been a gift because I get to go ahead and really appreciate and value life. I’m more honest and direct with people. Everyone I know knows that I love them. I had been divorced and still had resentment toward my husband, because there had been infidelity in the marriage. I thought, “It’s time for you to let this go. It punishes me — it doesn’t punish him. And I just want to have a life that’s free and peaceful and full of love, and I can’t if I’m not loving.” He had come to pick up our daughter, and I said, “I want you to know that I love you and I forgive you for everything that happened, and I played a part in that, and I hope that you can forgive me, too.” It was those kinds of conversations that I now had to have so I could basically clean up my life. So, if I did have a thought about somebody, it was like, “Oh, wow, they are just so awesome.” I’m pretty much complete with everybody in my life, and I don’t think I would have done that if I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer. That’s a huge gift. When I find myself getting upset and overwhelmed, I just take a breath and go, “In this moment, all is well. In this moment, I am breathing.”
What is your advice for others who have cancer and are out of medical options?
Be kind to yourself. Love yourself exactly where you’re at and try to develop a grateful heart for everything that you have right now. It may be an amazing oncologist, it may be an incredible care team, it may be a loving family, or it may be a roof over your head, because financially, a lot of people are devastated by a cancer diagnosis. There’s just today. That’s really the truth, and that’s the major message of every spiritual teaching. All you have is today. Love today.
What kinds of reactions have you gotten from people when they learned about your cancer?
People don’t have empathy or sympathy for you when you tell them you have liver cancer. When I said to my dad “I have liver cancer,” the first thing out of his mouth was “How much did you drink?” People seem to think, “That’s one of those cancers that you deserve.”
I think there’s an assumption about liver cancer because it’s usually alcohol related. And if someone is an alcoholic: compassion. Could you be kind? Could you not judge? The other thing, too, about judgment is that when you tell people you have cancer, right away they go into that “Well, don’t eat sugar, because sugar feeds cancer, and you have to watch your diet.” They don’t think of the flip side, because what I hear is that I’m responsible for my cancer. And I didn’t do anything to get cancer. I think you want to help me, but I also think (that) what’s underneath is the idea that there’s some way you can control not getting cancer, and here’s the deal: You can’t. You’re powerless. Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care. You don’t know if you’re going to get it — you just don’t.
How did you get into speaking to college students about safer sex?
My short answer is God. I did the HBO Aspen comedy fest, and this woman approached me and said, “You might want to do what I do: lecture at universities on safer sex.” I thought originally, “Yeah, I’ll do that, because I can make a lot of money while I’m auditioning for television.” And then I did some television and I hated it — but I loved the lecturing, I just absolutely loved it. And I thought, “This is my passion, and it’s also my forum, because I still get to be funny, but I get to deliver a message that’s really important.”
Why is this topic important to you, and why has this work been so rewarding?
Because I grew up in a family where I was shamed about sex, and I ended up having terrible sex and being in terrible situations. I ended up getting an STI (sexually transmitted infection) from a good friend. I’m glad to be able to say to young people what I wish someone had said to me, because if someone had, I would have had a very different life. I thought, “Here’s an opportunity to end some shame and suffering,” and I know that it’s made a difference, because people have contacted me. I was just in a restaurant a couple of weeks ago and this girl came up to me and said, “I want you to know that 10 years ago I saw you (speak) and you changed my life, and I wouldn’t (otherwise) have the life or the relationship I have now.” I thought, “Thank you; that was my affirmation.”
How do you want to be remembered?
I used to joke that someday I wanted to replace Susan B. Anthony on the dollar, and I wanted a photo of me in profile with a vibrator in one hand and condoms in the other, and that I was the person who altered the conversation about sex and sexuality, and that I changed the statistics. The statistics right now are that one in three women has been sexually molested and one in four men has been sexually molested. I wanted to be the person who changed those statistics to one in 30 and one in 40, because we would have a very different world if that were the case. That’s how I want to be remembered.