LITCHFIELD -- There are people in this world who are serious to the core, and others who laugh in the face of adversity. Noreen LaBatt, a Litchfield mother of two, is decidedly in the latter category.
Facing a near-death experience from breast cancer, LaBatt is now tackling her misfortune with a not-so-serious optimism that can make even the most straight-faced politicians laugh out loud.
What started with a simple, offhand and slightly discomforting comment to her surgeon, has escalated into a full-scale comedy act that Labatt is taking on the road. Her entertaining mission: not only to inspire other cancer patients but ultimately to spread the message that laughter, positive vibes and good-natured fun is a constructive response to a gloomy diagnosis.
"I am probably the height of embarrassment to my children, as I can put the words 'breast' and 'nipple' in one sentence and make light of it," said LaBatt, 44. "This is me making fun of myself as a way to cope with the situation, but it is also about making others feel better in the process."
As a woman who was in the trenches with BRCA1 breast cancer, LaBatt knows fully well the ramifications of the disease. With eight surgeries, eight rounds of chemotherapy and countless radiation sessions, LaBatt is a survivor of just about everything cancer has to offer.
Diagnosed with advanced invasive lobular carcinoma, LaBatt learned through test results that she had the BRCA gene mutation, the same genetic carrier that prompted actress Angelina Jolie to undergo a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction.
"Angelina and I have a lot more in common these days," LaBatt joked recently while performing her act at Litchfield's Campbell High School. "Yeah, the next time I'm in L.A. we're going to compare our DNA over soba noodles and discuss joint custody of Brad."
While breast cancer is no joking matter, LaBatt believes there is a forum in which laughter can be the best medicine. After undergoing her own bilateral mastectomy, ovary removal surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, anti-cancer drug therapy and full reconstruction, LaBatt says there is nothing better than humor to help face the future.
"I feel like if I didn't make fun of it, I would be weeping and hiding in my house, but not for a minute do I forget how lethal this disease is," she said.
During a performance of her current act, "Thanks for the Mamories," LaBatt shares a funny story about her plastic surgeon's own attempt at humor when he added his own healing statements to LaBatt's pre-approved list during surgery. She re-enacts the scenario in which she was under anesthesia and her surgeon echoed subtle statements in her ear about obeying her doctor, understanding that he is brilliant and telling him he is handsome. This, followed by a segment on the secrets of trophy-wife reconstruction and using the "cancer card" to get a beach house in Maine, had several people in the audience laughing themselves to tears.
Carolyn Choate, a cancer survivor herself, had the opportunity to hear one of LaBatt's first on-stage comedy acts and was floored by the audience's response.
"This is a defense mechanism for Noreen; there is no doubt about it," said Choate, a longtime sales manager for tv13 in Nashua and now LaBatt's agent.
Choate explained that upon leaving the hospital after various surgeries, patients sometimes receive gift bags containing educational brochures, counseling pamphlets and perhaps even a video on how to deal with dying.
"What about the chocolate and the wine?" Choate said, noting the need for some levity amid all the seriousness. "This act may have some in-the-face cracks at doctors, but it is never disrespectful. It is good-natured fun."
Working to secure future gigs for LaBatt, Choates says she's overwhelmed by the response from niche audiences such as health care providers, medical conferences and pharmaceutical conventions.
"These things are typically staid and academic," she said of the conferences and conventions. "Who doesn't love to laugh? We want to liven things up with some meaningful humor."
This Tuesday, LaBatt will take the stage at the Boston Healthcare Business Women's annual meeting as the warm-up act for Dr. Susan Love, the celebrity doctor whose book on breast cancer has sold millions of copies. On Saturday, LaBatt will be one of two speakers at the New Hampshire Oncology Nursing Society's conference in Bedford.
"People seem to like this back-door sense of humor and sometimes respond better to it than to serious stats and data," said LaBatt, acknowledging her husband is often taken aback by some of her graphic, yet endearing material.
For more about LaBatt, including a video of her performing, go to www.thanksforthemamories.com.