Humor Heals

HealWinter 2019
Volume 7
Issue 1

By joking about her cancer diagnosis, one survivor hopes to raise awareness and help people find laughter.

Heather Tolley-Bauer is a wife, mother, comedian and colon cancer survivor — the latter a title she never expected to hold at the age of 45.

In 2014, she and her family picked up their life in Connecticut and moved to Atlanta for her husband’s job, and she began settling into her own new role. “For the first time, I was staying at home,” Tolley-Bauer, now 48, said in an interview with Heal®. “But the house was empty, and I had always, always had my own thing happening.” Her son, then 5, was off to school, and her husband of 15 years was busy as an executive.

About six months later, with the unpacking completed, Tolley-Bauer signed up for a stand-up comedy class. The “45 and fearless” move transformed into a passion that has helped her cope with both “mom guilt” and a cancer diagnosis, she said. It also became her platform to raise awareness for the disease.

Tolley-Bauer said she feels lucky because her cancer was found early, at stage 1 — an uncommon occurrence in colon cancer. Her case was uncovered for an unrelated reason: She noticed a spot on her face and decided to get it checked. During the appointment, the dermatologist reviewed her family history. When he learned that Tolley-Bauer’s father had died of colon cancer about five years earlier, he urged her to get a colonoscopy.

Heather Tolley-Bauer created the brand Hyphen Up for her stand-up comedic performances.

“He asked me, ‘Have you ever heard of Lynch syndrome?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I have,’” Tolley-Bauer recalled. “Before my dad died, he said there was a doctor who kind of thought maybe there was a connection. He was never tested, so I never thought much of it.”

An inherited condition, Lynch syndrome increases a person’s risk of certain cancers, such as colon and endometrial cancer. The genetic mutation can occur in men and women, and parents have a 50 percent chance of passing it onto their children.

Because of her dermatologist’s persis­tence, Tolley-Bauer went for a colonos­copy in January 2016. The next month, she learned that a polyp found during the test was colon cancer. In March — colon cancer awareness month— she had two-thirds of her colon removed and underwent genetic testing. Tolley-Bauer was positive for Lynch syndrome. To reduce her risk of endometrial cancer, she had a prophylactic hysterectomy three months later.

“The way I describe it to people is: Imagine that somebody tells you that you’re going to get hit by a car, and you don’t know when and you don’t know where and you don’t know how bad it will be,” Tolley-Bauer said. “So you wake up every morning and you’re like, ‘Maybe it’s today.’ And you go to bed every night and you’re like, ‘Ahh … it wasn’t today. But maybe it’ll be tomorrow.’”

After learning the results, she did what she does well: She wrote jokes. “Four days after my diagnosis, I did a three-minute set just on having colon cancer,” she said. Since then, Tolley-Bauer has created Hyphen Up, the brand for her performances. It’s her way of making fun of herself for hyphenating her last name, which she now calls a pain in the neck. “Don’t hyphenate your name ever, because it becomes part of your name,” she said. “I’m at doctors’ appointments all the time. When I call or check in, I always have to say, ‘This is Heather Tolley Hyphen Bauer.’”

Hyphen Up also stands for what she is: a stay-at-home mom and a kick-ass cancer survivor. “The tagline is ‘Hyphen Up, Buttercup.’ And really, what that means is, embrace who you are. Embrace the pieces of your story,” Tolley-Bauer said.

She embraces hers by joking about the things that keep people, especially women, up at night. “For cancer survi­vors, I know the secret handshake, so I make fun of the common experience,” Tolley-Bauer said. “It’s not funny to be told you have cancer, but it is kind of funny when I had colon cancer and the first thing people would say is ‘no shit.’ And I’d be like, ‘See, this is why we need to raise aware­ness, because there’s lots of shit. It’s colon cancer!’”

Tolley-Bauer aims to place a comedic spin on colonosco­pies because she understands that no one wants to get one.

“Do you want to be a badass or do you want to have a bad ass? You choose,” she said.

Heather Tolley-Bauer performs jokes about motherhood and her cancer diagnosis.

Like many cancer survivors, she has challenging days and struggles with what some call “survivor’s guilt.” That feeling came to light after two friends each lost a friend to colon cancer. Those women, who were younger than Tolley-Bauer and had children, had received their diagnoses the same time she did. “I really struggled with (the fact that) they’re gone and I’m here,” she said. “And I struggled with how lucky I am that we caught mine early. And I struggled with that because I have Lynch syndrome — how many times are they going to catch it early? I really did contemplate my mortality, which I try not to do, because I feel healthy. The saying that I’ve really been reflecting on a lot lately is ‘Focus on what you do have and not what you don’t have.’”

Her reality is that she never knows if her cancer will return or a new cancer will develop, but she vows to live her life and not allow stressors to take over. “My oncologist told me that if they didn’t find (my cancer) when they did that I would have had only five years to live,” Tolley-Bauer said. ““Three years later, I am able to tell jokes about it, and I am not fighting for my life. That really resonates with moms. My son’s story is not watching Mommy fight for her life. It’s Mommy telling butt jokes, and at 10 years old, that’s awesome.”

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