Arts / Cancer, up close and personable

“A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer”… billed as “a rip-roaring, heartbreaking celebration.” Photo by Christa Holka

CANCER sufferers have a lot more to contend with than their illness – there’s also the reaction of their friends.

Lara Veitch knows all about it. Diagnosed with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, a rare mutation that predisposes her towards cancer, she has already survived six forms of cancer and is now coming from the UK to Australia – her first time here – in “A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer”.

Featuring six women performers, including real cancer patients, it was written by Bryony Kimmings and Brian Lobel and, initially a musical, has been reworked by director Kirsty Housley as a play with songs by Tom Parkinson for touring.

Billed as “a rip-roaring, heartbreaking celebration,” the show has seen Veitch gradually become the media face for the play since she produced a practical seven-point guide to being a good friend to someone who has cancer, some of which is in the show.

An example? Her first bit of advice is: “Try not to say ‘What can I do?’ or ‘How can I help?’… What you can say is: ‘I’m coming over and I’m going to make dinner and I’m going to clean your kitchen, is that okay?’”

Lara Veitch… “I have a rant about things that bother me… cancer makes people so uncomfortable.” Photo by Mark Douet

“CityNews” caught up with Veitch by phone to London, where she describes how she was approached by playwright Bryony Kimmings, who had been commissioned by the theatre company Complicité to write a play on cancer.

“I have known Bryony for about four years. She’s great and she’s my friend,” Veitch says.

“But my role is different, I’m not an actor or performer, I was of interest to Bryony just because my role is different.

“The genetic angle, that’s what makes me unusual, I suffer from a rare genetic cancer syndrome, a mutation that makes my risk of cancer very high… my mum died of cancer when she was very young so it was likely she had it and her mum died of cancer so probably she had it, but we don’t know that for sure.”

Kimmings, she says, had interviewed countless sufferers, so had to select from a huge amount of material. She wanted to pick the stories that hadn’t been told, the “non-predictable narratives… my story is less usual”.

“It’s the way Bryony has always done her work… it’s very simple, very straightforward, people say: ‘This is what happened to me and this is what I did’,” Veitch says.

The show sees Kimmings starting to write a show and trying to make it into a kind of guide.

“The work is about how the world around you treats you. It’s very non-theatrical in the way that it is told. I think with an important subject like cancer you can make it too theatrical,” says Veitch.

Veitch came up trumps with her “practical guide”, but says: “I also have a rant about things that bother me… cancer makes people so uncomfortable, each illness has its own kind of language code but with cancer it’s more extreme.”

One of the things that really gets up the noses of cancer sufferers is what the cast calls “the cancer face”, so in one hilarious scene, the actors have fun making faces expressing “sympathy” and “understanding”.

“It wouldn’t be right to make a show about cancer that is entirely sad, because that’s not what life is like, even when you have cancer,” Veitch says.

“Ridiculous things happen, like tripping over your chemo tube. To say nothing of the boring things, like treatment cycles, hairlessness and scars.”

Veitch is now in recovery. It’s about a year since her last illness and she says: “I’m quite well and I’m not on any active treatment, I feel like I’m recovering… although I still do have medication and it can be tiring.”

But when she tires, Veitch has the full support of her fellow professionals.

“They have taught me the terminology of the theatre,” she says.

“For instance, when the show was opening, someone said to me, ‘you’ll get your half hour’ and I had no idea what that meant… but they told me it means you get a call half an hour before you go on stage – little things like that.”

In her now-famous “guide”, widely distributed on YouTube, a poignant moment sees Veitch, still without hair from her chemotherapy, advising fellow cancer patients to simply breathe.

“All you need to do is just keep breathing, that’s what I try to do,” she confirms.

“A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer,” at the Playhouse, February 28 to March 3, bookings to canberrtheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.

Lara Veitch’s guide to being a good friend to someone who has cancer:

  1. Try not to say “What can I do?” or “How can I help?” say, “I’m coming over and I’m going to make dinner and I’m going to clean your kitchen, is that okay?”
  2. Understand that the person who is ill is going to react in unexpected ways, your support might be thrown in your face.
  3. Send cards with lots of writing and stories and things relating to you (not generic cards).
  4. Ask the person what they want to eat before you come.
  5. It’s nice to have the offer to accompany your sick friend to appointments but they should never be forced to take people along.
  6. When visiting, don’t douse yourself in perfume or bring smelly food or candles, unless on request.
  7. Don’t disappear. Don’t be scared of saying the wrong thing.

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