Survivor Stories
September 26, 2023 • 3 Min

Finding Humor During Cancer Treatment

John Ziegler

Pancreatic patient and comedian John Ziegler
  • Dark urine and jaundiced eyes lead to diagnosis
  • Inflamed gallbladder and pancreatic cancer
  • Whipple surgery followed by sepsis complications
  • Chemotherapy after surgery

My life changed forever at the age of 53.

It was April 2021 and I noticed that my urine was darker than normal. I popped into urgent care to get it checked out. The physician observed that my eyes were jaundiced and told me to go to an emergency room immediately. I then had a CT scan and ultrasound, which showed that my gallbladder was inflamed. I was admitted to the hospital and had an MRI with contrast. The next day a surgeon told me that my gallbladder wasn’t the problem. He saw a mass in my bile duct and suspected that I had cancer.

The next step was to have an endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) to determine what we were dealing with. It ended up being stage II pancreatic cancer. Luckily the cancer hadn’t spread beyond my pancreas, which indicated that surgery was an option.

Delays, Complications, and (Finally) Surgery

I was being treated at  Long Island Jewish Medical Center, part of Northwell Health. I did a lot of research and found Dr. Matthew Weiss to perform my surgery. I could not have been more fortunate to have him on my team. After six weeks of complications and two bouts of sepsis, Dr. Weiss performed a Whipple surgery to remove the head of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, the gallbladder, and the bile duct. I then had six months of chemotherapy at R. J. Zuckerberg Cancer Center across the street. My oncologist was Dr. Anna Levy. Once again, I could not have been more fortunate to have her on my team. 

I finished chemotherapy in February 2022 and all of my scans since then have been clean!

Laughter Is the Best Medicine

When I am not battling cancer, I am a stand-up comedian. While I was being treated in the hospital, unsure of how much time I had left, I decided to write and record a comedy special. I started to write about my cancer journey from my hospital bed. A few months after completing my chemo, I recorded a comedy special called “Getting My Affairs In Order,” which is free to watch online. Believe it or not, there is humor in everything—even discolored urine, MRIs, and Whipple procedures!

Time, Talent, or Treasure

In June of 2023 I was asked to be the keynote speaker for Northwell Health’s Cancer Survivor’s Day. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to tell my story to 1,200 cancer survivors that day. I will be getting married to my fiance Dawn this September, which is also something to celebrate. I am grateful to be here and to be feeling well. My doctors, nurses, family, and friends were amazing.

I always tell people cancer was the worst thing to happen to me . . . and also the best thing. I can only hope that I will have the chance to give back to the world in some capacity. With this in mind, a friend recently told me, “You give your time, talent, or treasure.” I don’t have any treasure, but I’ll give the other two as best as I can.

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