"When sorrows come," Shakespeare wrote, "they come not single spies but in battalions." Comedian Julia Sweeney knows what he meant. Last August, several months after leaving Saturday Night Live to pursue a movie career, her brother Mike, 31, a box office employee for L.A.'s Groundlings comedy troupe, was stricken with lymphoma. Then in March, three weeks before Mike died, Sweeney herself was diagnosed with cervical cancer. "I never felt closer to Mike than during those last days," she recalls. "Because of our illnesses, we shared a connection."
The oldest of five children raised in Spokane, Wash.—her father, Bob, 65, is a retired federal prosecutor; her mother, Jeri, 57, a housewife—Sweeney graduated from the University of Washington and launched her show-business career with the Groundlings in 1986. Four years later she joined the SNL cast, where she was best known for her beloved androgynous character Pat. Buoyed during her illness by family and friends—including ex-husband Stephen Hibbert, a TV writer, fellow SNL alums Mike Myers and Phil Hartman and director Quentin Tarantino—Sweeney, 35, who still does weekly standup gigs in Los Angeles, is now in remission after two surgeries and nine weeks of radiation. She spoke recently about her ordeal with correspondent Kurt Pitzer.
IT SEEMS MY ENTIRE LIFE FELL APART that weekend in August last year. It's Pat: The Movie, the film which I had starred in and written based on my SNL character, had just gotten terrible reviews, and I was devastated. I was moping around the house when I got the call from my brother Mike. I had been worried since a few days earlier, when he had passed out while visiting friends in Rochester, N.Y., and doctors there thought he might have an ulcer. I'll never forget the sound of his voice—so fragile and alone—when he told me it was cancer.
My heart stopped. All I wanted was to climb through the phone line to be with him. He had lymphoma, and it had spread from the lymph nodes in his neck to the lymph nodes under his arms, in his abdomen—everywhere. I called my agent to cancel the rest of my publicity tour and flew to Rochester to join my parents, who had arrived from Spokane. The hospital doctors told us Mike had only a 40 percent chance of surviving. With my sister and two other brothers calling in daily, Mike underwent intensive chemotherapy and lost his hair, which he joked about. Five weeks later, it was like a miracle when the doctors gave him the okay to check out, even upping his odds of survival to 75 percent.
Mike agreed to let me take care of him, which broke my heart since he'd always been so independent. I'd never felt so protective. We headed straight to my house in L.A., where he stayed in my room, my parents stayed in my guest room, and I slept in my office. Nearly every day I took him to the UCLA Medical Center for chemo, radiation and checkups. And because he didn't have insurance, I helped pay the bills that state aid didn't cover. But by Christmas his condition had worsened. He was emaciated and losing his vision, and the cancer had moved into his cranial fluids. Everyone's hopes flagged but Mike's. He asked to go skiing in Idaho and actually made it down a run, which we celebrated by eating nachos in the lodge. And he kept his sense of humor. Several weeks later when he could no longer eat, I would feed him through a tube in his stomach, and he would smack his lips and say, "Yum, sure tastes good tonight!"
In the midst of all this, I made a routine gynecological appointment in early March. I'd had a pap smear only eight months earlier in New York, but when I got my new one I started bleeding. The doctor did a biopsy and said it could be cancer, but he wouldn't know for a few days. I was terrified. I just kept telling myself, "It can't be. I can't have cancer too." When the doctor called me at my office with the bad news, my face got all hot, my skin started tingling and my ears began ringing. I immediately phoned two friends on a conference call, and all we said to each other for 25 minutes was, "Oh, my God, oh, my God."
I hadn't said anything to my parents yet, but now I had to. They were in the kitchen doing dishes when I told them the news. They looked like 5-year-olds, so innocent and vulnerable. My dad put his hand on his chest and my mom's eyes got big and filled with water. For days I couldn't bring myself to tell Mike, because I knew it would make him sad, and I didn't want to break his spirit. By this time he was in the hospital full-time—he was down from 180 pounds to 110 and could barely talk. When I told him, he looked at me more deeply than ever, looked away and just held my hand. Then with what must have been all his energy, he cracked a joke, saying, "I guess you have sympathy cancer."
On March 10, they surgically removed part of my cervix. The doctors found the cancer had spread to my uterus, but they couldn't tell if it had reached my lymph nodes so they scheduled a radical hysterectomy for April 4. And as if I wasn't already going mad, my dad checked into the hospital for chest pains on March 28. Stress had brought him to the brink of a massive heart attack, and he underwent an angioplasty. That was on a Tuesday. That Saturday, on April 1, Mike died. I had seen him only a few hours before, and he wasn't even cognizant. In his last days, he had taken to writing notes because he couldn't talk. The notes were painful. He'd write things like, "Let's try another chemo." One of the last ones he wrote was, "I want to live." In a way his death was a relief because it meant an end to his suffering. That night I held a wake at my house—it was really a lively party, which Mike would have liked. But my main feeling was sadness, and I cried a lot. I still do.
All my concerns about him had helped keep my mind off my own problems. But on April 4—three days after he died—I was on an operating table getting my cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes and 44 lymph nodes removed. I thought, "At least this should make me a few pounds lighter!" Afterward, the doctors thought there still might be cancer cells in my vagina and ordered nine weeks of intense radiation, the worst part being the internal treatments. For those, they gave me a catheter and I would lie on a metal gurney and they would use a pipelike device that emitted radiation. It produced terrible side effects. I was put on a bland, high-starch diet to control my severe gastrointestinal problems.
Exhausted, I spent much of my time in bed at home watching reruns of Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke. I reduced my friends to a core group of four or five and sometimes unplugged the phone. A friend from Aspen, David Frank, a paragliding instructor, stayed with me and went with me to every single radiation appointment, which was a huge help. Oddly enough, I also found the energy to do stand-up once a week. It was like therapy to tell my stories in front of a group, like how my doctors offered to remove 12 of my eggs so I could one day hire a surrogate mom in case the radiation ruined my ovaries. (It didn't.) I'd say, "Why 12? Because you always need a dozen eggs!"
I finished treatment on July 12, and my chances of recurrence are near zero. And my dad's doing just fine too. Now I just go in for a pap smear every three months. I recently told my agent I'm ready to work again, and I've been meeting with TV writers about possible projects. But even if nothing pans out, I'll be okay. I used to be spastically ambitious and obsessed with work. Now I'm taking an easier view of things. After all I've been through, life doesn't seem like such a race anymore.
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine