Cancer isn’t funny; it’s hilarious.
That’s the mantra that carried Kaylin Andres, a young fashion artist from Sacramento, through eight wrenching years of surgeries, chemo treatments and radiation for a rare form of cancer.
In November, the 31-year-old lost her battle with Ewing’s sarcoma, an aggressive cancer that typically strikes kids and young adults. Cut off from her passion for fashion, she found new artistic avenues to battle her cancer, attracting hundreds of followers worldwide. Andres leaves behind an artistic legacy aimed at helping cancer patients, including a long-running blog, CancerIsHilarious.com, a series of graphic comic novels called “Terminally Illin’ ” and a stint on MTV’s “World of Jenks” show.
For Andres, writing and tapping humor – even the dark side – helped get her through some of her darkest hours, said her mother and sister, both of whom live in Sacramento.
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“She did not set out in her life to help people (with cancer),” said her mother, Lynn. “She wanted to to be a fashion designer ... but circumstances led her to this other way to have a legacy.”
Intentionally or not, Andres became part of a blogosphere of young patients who fend off cancer’s intrusion in their lives by writing about it. With irreverent names such as I Made Cancer My Bitch, Cancer Slayer Blog and Lord of the Hodge (a Hodgkin’s lymphoma patient), they belong to a generation inspired by Stupid Cancer, a website started by a young brain cancer survivor in 2007 as an online community for cancer patients ages 15 to 39.
Next month, Stupid Cancer is hosting its annual summit, CancerCon.org in Denver, where it promises young cancer patients can meet with “hundreds of nonjudgmental friends your age that you never knew you had. They’re just as pissed as you. And that’s OK. Well, not really. But you know what we mean.”
Andres launched her blog in August 2008, intending to offer inspiration to other 20-somethings “who refuse to go the way of headscarves and hospital gowns. I mean, really? Cancer is … hilarious.” Her blog caught the eye of Newsweek, which mentioned her in an article on young cancer patients, and led to a guest column for the Huffington Post, as well as an appearance on “World of Jenks,” which featured her in its second season as she moved to New York and worked with fashion icon Betsey Johnson.
She named her blog after an encounter during her first visit to a Sacramento oncologist’s office. Sitting in the waiting room, she and her sister were flipping through catalogs offering wigs and hairpieces for cancer patients losing their hair to chemotherapy. Seeing an advertisement for fake bangs, which could be velcroed under a hat or visor, they began giggling uncontrollably. An older patient became so irritated by their laughter that she marched over and angrily admonished them: “Cancer isn’t funny.”
On Cancer is Hilarious, Andres posted photos of her bald head, her newest wig and wrote about her bleakest hours after throwing up from chemo as well as her fears, doubts and worries. She described procedures: “CT scans are like a really (bad) amusement park ride. You hold your arms out above your head and hold your breath for … nothing really. … I want my tickets back.”
Still in her 20s, she wrote about grappling with the issue of infertility due to radiation. “They will save my little eggies for me just in case, but really, it’s like having your womanhood stolen from you.” And she talked about pain, in one instance posting a cartoon drawing of her face painted on a rising balloon: “When the pain becomes too much to bear, my mind just pops right off from my body like a balloon. I feel separated from everything, just floating and unfeeling. … Great coping mechanism, huh?”
In a 2013 Huffington Post essay, she described how bone cancer came back “like a bad ex-boyfriend and paid a visit to my lungs.” By her third encounter with cancer, she wrote, “you start to let go of the prevailing popular opinion that cancer is a battle with only two outcomes – cure or death. There is a third, secret option, relatively unknown to the general healthy public: You learn to live with it.”
Dr. Marcio Malogolowkin, chief of the division of pediatric hematology oncology at UC Davis Health, said Andres’ attitude is exactly what’s needed for younger adults with cancer, who don’t always find a comfortable fit between pediatric and geriatric patients and often feel socially isolated from their peers.
It’s important “to be candid and honest and not hide from friends and family. It’s OK to be vocal, to be able to feel angry, to feel sad, but not to run away from the fight, ” Malogolowkin said. “Using art, comedy, music is a way to stay positive, to do the things they need to do to fight” their illness.
In 2008, just before starting her senior year of art college in San Francisco, Andres’ world turned upside down. Hobbled by intense pain in her abdomen, she was hospitalized and eventually diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma after a tumor was discovered on her pelvic bone. That September, she blogged about having to tell her California College of the Arts professors that she’d be attending “chemo class” in Sacramento, instead of a real classroom in San Francisco.
“One of the only things I can’t take – the only thing that breaks me down – is the very real possibility that I won’t be continuing school. I cry every single time I email my teachers,” she wrote.
She eventually graduated but her repeated cancer recurrences cut short her aspirations of a fashion career. Instead, she channeled her artistic pursuits into writing, blogging and art.
Perhaps her most vivid legacy is a full-color graphic comic novel, “Terminally Illin’,” that chronicles her first year of getting diagnosed and going through chemotherapy. In a “chemo-induced Alice in Wonderland” journey, she enters her own body, ready to do battle with a nasty, obese tumor, an Arnold Schwarzenegger-lookalike dubbed the “Tumornator.” (“Hopefully he won’t be baaack.”) Her real-life gray cat, Iceman, appears as her comic-book sidekick.
“When she first got cancer, everyone’s all smiles … pink bandanas and positivity and a ‘we can do this’ attitude,” said Jon Mojeske, a San Francisco painter and illustrator who collaborated with her on the book. “For her, she had a lot of anger and stuff she wanted to get out. Fighting her enemy (cancer) was cathartic.”
The 100-page book was published in 2015, the first of a trilogy the pair completed, and is still available online free to cancer patients at cancercomicbook.com.
Laughter’s role in medical treatment has long been studied and shown to provide therapeutic benefits to combat stress and anxiety and promote well-being in those facing serious illness. Ancient surgeons used humor to distract patients from pain as early as the 13th century, according to Cancer Treatment Centers of America. In his 1979 book, “Anatomy of an Illness,” journalist Norman Cousins described how he used laughter – including watching funny movies – to help cope with his own serious illness.
Diagnosed in 2008 at age 23, Andres’ next eight years were an unrelenting series of surgeries and brutal chemotherapy and radiation treatments, as tumors kept recurring throughout her body.
Between surgeries and treatments, she put on two art shows. In one, she teamed with fellow Ewing’s sarcoma cancer patient Max Ritvo, a young Yale graduate and poet with a master’s in fine art from Columbia University. They met at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, sharing surgery scars and an uncertain future. Both in their 20s, they forged a bond that culminated in a 2014 gallery show of art installations they called “Chemosynthesis.” It included strings of illuminated lights made from prescription pill bottles and “cocktail” glasses of chemotherapy pills and Victorian-style hair weavings on hospital gown fabric.
In June, her last art gallery show was a solo exhibit dubbed Viaticum, which featured color photographs, printed on filmy silk, taken in Brazil, where she met with a spiritual healer. The show opened immediately after she finished five weeks of excruciating brain and spinal column radiation.
“We knew it would eventually be fatal,” said her mother, Lynn, “but we always had hope for a miracle. She had hope with every treatment that she could get better.”
By September, Andres knew her time was running out. Her father, Ron, said they were seeking insurance company approval for an experimental drug, when doctors informed them it likely would not help or extend her life.
Last October, as her end appeared close, a follower in Australia posted on her blog: “You don’t know us but we love you. We follow your life and times, highs and lows. We bought Terminally Illin’ and donated it to (an Australian) child cancer ward. What a gift you give these kids, a way to deal with their diagnosis. … Kaylin you are a bright light in this dark world and we are thankful for your bravery and wit, thankful you share your story with us.”
In one of Andres’ last posts, in November 2016, she told her audience that “it will be so hard giving up my dreams, finally, to this Monster (cancer). And yet, I feel incredibly lucky to have survived 8 years past my first diagnosis-- I hope I’ve inspired some of you to make it even longer. I’ve made little pieces of my dreams come true in the past 8 years, and that’s more than some get. I feel blessed.”
On Nov. 16, she posted: “It’s finally time to say I’m dying, really.” With bone tumors in her hip, femur, spine and arm, the 31-year-old was in extreme pain, relying on fentanyl and dilaudid to get through her days in a Brooklyn apartment. “I can no longer even get up on my own anymore so being alone in this apartment is pointless. There is no more that they can do for me as far as radiation or palliative chemo. It’s spread throughout my bone marrow. … I’m so sad it’s happening so soon. It seems like every day and week my body gets worse so much faster. And I have so much within me that I wish I could get out. So much. There is just no time.”
She decided to fly home to Sacramento, where she could start hospice care in her childhood bedroom. A longtime friend from Brazil flew in to escort her back home to Sacramento with Iceman, her beloved gray cat.
She never made it. Less than 24 hours before her flight would have left New York, on Nov. 21, Andres died in a hospital, with friends at her side. She was 31.
Andres was buried in Sacramento. Her fluffy cat, who was featured in her comic novels, now resides with her mother.
Four months after her passing, Andres’ family still grieves but finds some solace in knowing she faced her terminal illness with dignity, humor and courage despite her young age.
Her father, who manages a medical gas distribution company, said he’s proudest of his daughter’s courage.
“She had to deal with the fear, the anger, the sense of unfairness about it all. Those were things the blog addressed. She did it in a way that was not only cathartic for her, but for other people, which was magnificent. … More than anything else, it’s the way she led her life. She captured everything she could capture, even though she knew she was terminal.”