When stand-up comedian René Hicks tells people that her cancer diagnosis came just days before her 45th birthday, she says their response often makes her laugh.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s so sad to get the news right before your birthday,’” she says. “Like there would be a better time to get it? Maybe Groundhog Day would be a better time. Maybe Flag Day. What’s a better date to get news like that?”
She can laugh now, but in 2001, the lung cancer diagnosis was no joke. She had performed in comedy clubs around the world and was featured on television shows like “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and the ABC comedy “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper” starring Holly Robinson Peete. She even appeared in Keenan Ivory Wayans’ 1994 film “A Low Down Dirty Shame.” But the diagnosis changed everything.
“I had felt radiating pain between my shoulder blades for a while,” says René, 56, a former college track star who stayed in shape at the time by running, rollerblading and lifting weights. “When you’re an athlete you’re always in pain. I thought that maybe it was a pulled muscle.”
Her doctor in Los Angeles, where she lived then, also diagnosed a muscle pull. Later, when the pain spread to her chest, Rene was told she had heartburn. But she insisted that something serious was wrong and visited doctors repeatedly seeking answers. A year later, an x-ray revealed a mass on her lung.
Surgeons determined that René had cancer, she says, and removed the lower lobe of her right lung and some lymph nodes. A nonsmoker with no family history of cancer, the news shocked her, she says. “I asked the surgeon, ‘Why me? I’m so healthy.’”
But, René had worked in smoke-filled comedy clubs nearly every night for almost 20 years. She says her surgeon told her, and as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics confirm, secondhand smoke increases the lung cancer risk for nonsmokers. “It’s like a virgin being exposed to sluts and getting pregnant,” she says.
Because the cancer was caught early, doctors gave her a good prognosis, she says. She tried performing in comedy clubs again. But most clubs permitted smoking, and the fumes sent her into coughing fits, she says.
So, René vowed to work only in smoke-free venues, she says. While she worked in clubs that banned smoking, she also began performing on university campuses where smoking inside buildings was prohibited. Moreover, she read articles about smoking and health and included those topics in her act.
On smoking to stay thin: “If you’re smoking an addictive substance to not gain weight, you should start smoking crack. I’ve seen a lot of fat smokers. I’ve never seen a fat crack head.”
She even found irony in tobacco industry smoking cessation programs. “It’s like heroin dealers telling junkies if they want to use drugs, they’ll sell it to them, but if they want to quit, they [the dealers] have a website.”
Soon, tobacco prevention advocacy groups began inviting her to deliver keynote speeches. In 2005, she appeared in two public service announcements for the Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Whitelies.tv campaign. The ad “Secondhand Smoke is No Joke” won a 2006 YouTube® Telly Award, which honors local, regional and cable television commercials.
But as her career revived, by 2010, her weight ballooned to 203 pounds. She tried exercising the way she used to, but couldn’t stay motivated. Says, René, “It was devastating.”
Then René remembered the Nintendo Wii Fit Plus video game she had bought on a whim several months earlier. “So, I said I’m just going to play. I’m not even going to think about exercising.” Almost every day she played the game for 20 to 30 minutes, René says. She later switched to the EA SPORTS Active: Personal Trainer video, she says. Over time, besides video games, she began using her treadmill and elliptical machine for variety and eating a healthier diet. In one year, she dropped 74 pounds, she says.
Today, she still plays like a kid. She rollerblades and even hula hoops occasionally to stay in shape. “You have to hook into that child-like spirit that has been innately yours forever,” she says. “That’s what kept me going.”
These days, René’s schedule is full. She frequently travels from her home in Vallejo, Ca., to speak and perform on college campuses and at anti-smoking events around the country to spread the word about the dangers of secondhand smoke. “I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else,” René says.
Her experience with cancer taught her to trust her instincts, she says, and to be proactive with her health. “You have to know yourself. You have to know that you know yourself and your body and keep in touch with that because you are your first line of defense.”
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