December 8, 2017

Cancer deters comedian’s NCYC gig, but not her faith or humor

Judy McDonald interacts with her service dog Daisy during a past National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis on Nov. 25, 2013. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Judy McDonald interacts with her service dog Daisy during a past National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis on Nov. 25, 2013. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

A common sight among the excited youths and silly hats at the biannual National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) is comedian Judy McDonald and her service dog Daisy.

But they were not able to make it this year, and the reason is no laughing matter. On Sept. 29, McDonald was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a double mastectomy on Oct. 27.

The surgery was the latest in a list of issues that might make McDonald seem like a modern-day Job: an early trauma that led to ongoing post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), a ruptured disc that resulted in back surgery three years ago, and a car accident that caused Daisy, her service dog for PTSD, to develop the disorder as well, which limits where McDonald can now travel.

But the comedian, 41, is far from letting such setbacks get her down.

“What doesn’t kill you gives you more material,” she quips.

In fact, the very day she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she signed up with a group to train for a mini-marathon—only the second in her life—in her hometown of Vista, Calif.

“I thought my surgery would be scheduled before the mini, so I’d get to be like, ‘Darn, I can’t do it,’ ” she says with mock sincerity.

As it turns out, the race was held on Oct. 22, five days before her surgery. McDonald did run it—with her hair dyed flamingo pink in support of breast cancer awareness, and running with a friend’s service dog because Daisy’s PTSD kept her “hiding under a table the entire race.”

McDonald is already talking about participating in another race in January “whether I run, walk or crawl. Just to have a goal is to have something to look forward to,” she says.

“People tell me I’m so brave, but the way I see it, there’s no other alternative—you can break your neck putting your pants on in the morning.”

Instead, she counts her blessings.

“I’m taken care of,” she says. “I have more [possessions] than half the people in the world. I have running water and a roof, and I’m living where I can get good medical care.”

Such positivity is a natural outgrowth of McDonald’s strong, lifelong Catholic faith.

“There’s just been a resounding message of, ‘I’m going to be OK,’ ” she says. “I’ve had that my whole life. I think it’s a deep-rooted belief that if you get hit by a car and die, you’ll be OK, or if you win the lottery, you’ll be OK. My faith in Jesus tells me that these trials and tribulations on Earth don’t matter. There are ups and downs, but the constant is my Catholic faith—it’s always steadfast.”

McDonald’s positive attitude was helped by the fact that her diagnosis came as no shock. With numerous relatives having cancer—including her mother and one of her sisters having breast cancer—her doctors have been monitoring her for years, even though she was told she didn’t have the gene that put her at greater risk for breast cancer.

While the diagnosis was not a surprise to McDonald, it has still taken time to process.

“It’s like a [St.] John Paul II lesson on ‘do not be afraid,’ ” she says. “I still have the occasional freak-out, but it’s getting better. …

“I think growing up, a lot of kids think when you’re immersed in your faith you have to say, ‘That [particular thing] doesn’t bother me.’ But when you mature, you realize it’s OK if you’re scared. God is with you in the ‘Woohoo!’ and the ‘Uh‑oh,’ and the ‘This stinks.’ …

“Now I can say, ‘I’ve been there. I’m telling you that it’s going to be OK.’ ”

Battling breast cancer is not McDonald’s first lesson in faith—it took a lot of trust to switch from youth ministry to becoming a full-time comedian, performing for both youths and adults.

“When I started as a professional comedian 20 some years ago, I told God, ‘As long as you keep getting me shows, I’ll keep going out,’ ” she says.

“This is the first time I don’t have anything booked for the next year except one [show].”

McDonald jokes that her lack of future bookings has left her “feeling confident—confident that I don’t know how I’m going to pay my medical bills,” she says with a laugh. Being an itinerant minister, she only gets paid when she is performing.

But, she adds on a more serious note, “I’m confident that somehow God will make the situation work. I’ve had an outpouring of support from my family, my friends” and her fellow itinerant ministers.

One gig she can count on in the future is NCYC 2019 in Indianapolis.

“I, like many, was shocked when she told me” about the breast cancer, says Christina Lamas, executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, which has NCYC as one of its ministries. “I just couldn’t believe it. She’s young. It hit home. She’s a talented, full-of-life person.”

Lamas told McDonald that “the door to NCYC is always open to you.”

“She’s incredible, full of life, full of passion,” Lamas says. “You can see that come through in her interaction with the young people, in the stories she shares, and how she includes humor into her lived faith experience. You can see the young people connect with her. Their eyes light up, they smile, they engage with her humor.”

McDonald has some physical healing to do before getting back on the road. In a video posted on her Facebook page on Nov. 16, the first day of NCYC, she shared that she is still quite sore from the October procedure. Early next year, tests will be run to see if any cancer remains. If so, she’ll have chemotherapy; if not, then she’ll prepare for reconstructive surgery.

But just because she isn’t performing doesn’t mean that McDonald isn’t ministering.

“I’m not just a Catholic comedian,” she says. “I’m a Catholic daughter, aunt, dog trainer, etc. Just because I’m on stage doesn’t mean I have a call to only evangelize there. We have to be more in that mode all the time to evangelize, no matter where we are.”

When she’s ready to get back on the stage, McDonald says she’ll have a lot of new material.

“I swear I have so much good material now, above and beyond what I did before,” she comments in the video. “If you thought I was good before—a comedian with PTSD and a service dog—you should hear the routines I have being a PTSD comedian with a service dog who also has PTSD, and a cancer survivor!”

Meanwhile, she continues to count her blessings.

“What cancer can’t take away from me is just the love I feel from my community, which isn’t just in San Diego County, but all over the world,” she says in her Nov. 16 video. “I’m so thankful for that.”
 

(To contribute to a YouCaring site started for Judy McDonald by her friends to help pay for her medical bills, go to www.youcaring.com/judymcdonald-958920. To see videos of McDonald’s acts, go to www.judymcdonald.net.)

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