DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – The chaos and suffering that was the year 2020 has nothing on 2016 for Jen Hellman.
She’d already lost her father and endured the breakup of her marriage when, in the year’s final days, doctors diagnosed her breast cancer.
“It hit me hard,” Hellman said. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it. I was by myself.”
A Baltimore native with a mother who still lives in the Charm City, Hellman elected to remain in Florida to battle the disease. She drew strength from laughter.
A stand-up comic and promoter for more than a decade, Hellman relied on her ability to laugh and to make others laugh as more than a coping mechanism. It also helped turn her battle into a source for new material.
“Comedy was kind of like the silver lining in it all,” Hellman said. “I was trying to keep life as normal as possible even though it was completely turned upside down and disruptive. Working and doing comedy are stable to me.”
Doctors originally recommended a double mastectomy as a both a treatment and preventative measure, a way of ensuring the cancer didn’t spread or re-appear in her other breast.
Hellman pursued a different route.
“I really wanted to keep my own breasts,” Hellman said. “It was really, really important to me. I was naturally large anyway. And it was weird because my whole life as a woman was a battle with these breasts. I had a smaller frame with really large breasts. It was like when I finally got comfortable with them I was facing losing them.”
Hellman and her doctors devised a plan to remove the tumor and 25 percent of each breast, followed by eight weeks of radiation treatment. Her breasts would be smaller, but she’d still have her natural tissue.
Undergoing daily radiation treatment, Hellman struggled to manage the day-to-day operations of her advertising and public relations business.
But when a strip club called Scores approached her about starting a comedy night in a back room, she saw the shows as a pathway back to her normal life.
Hellman booked the shows and even managed to perform, cracking jokes that belied the radiation-induced burning she felt in her breast.
“That I could do,” Hellman said. “That’s just booking and promoting. I took them up on it and, literally, that money from Scores and doing the show really helped me get through the treatment and paying for it.”
Hellman isn’t shy about incorporating her cancer battle into her set, addressing the topic without pummeling the audience into sympathy.
“You can’t have cancer and take yourself seriously,” Hellman said. “No matter what I said in the first six minutes of the set, to go there – if I had lost them or if they were already on board with me – they are on board with me now because they see me differently.”
On a Tuesday night at Delray Beach’s Turtle Tavern Hellman’s breast cancer survival revelation drew an applause break.
Walking off stage, Hellman paused momentarily to accept a hug from a crying new fan.
“I told her I’ve been through cancer survival and I wanted to give her a hug because I’ve been through it,” Rachel Miesch said.
That kind of post-set reaction is now the norm for Hellman.
“You can’t mentally take it on alone,” Hellman said. “We pull for people who are fighting. We pull for people who survive.”
Nearly four years removed from her cancer diagnosis Hellman is still taking preventative medication. Though far from pleasant, the side effects – weight gain, some hair loss – aren’t nearly as debilitating as the radiation therapy.
Hellman is still waiting for bars and comedy clubs to recover from COVID-19-induced shutdowns to determine how frequently she’ll be able to tour. Her appearance at the Turtle Tavern was the second of three shows that week.
Offstage, Hellman is focusing on her non-profit – Comics Crushing Cancer – an organization dedicated to raising money to help women with the personal financial costs incurred while battling cancer. Through CCC she organizes benefit shows, sells merchandise and accepts donations.
“I can’t be without comedy,” Hellman said. “I’ve tried to be without comedy but I need it in some capacity. I need the creativity and the laughter and the people and the comedians. I can’t turn my back on it.”