On Stage: Storyteller Gets Creative About Her Cancer Journey

Feb 20, 2017

Christine Ernst performing her one-woman show. August 2016.
Credit Photo by Michael Ernst.

When Christine Ernst  was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 34, she never expected that it would one day spark her own one-woman show.

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Uncensored Transcript: 

Christine: My neighbor had a Great Dane that was never on a leash who pooped basically land mines in my yard.

(RITCHIE) That’s Christine Ernst. She’s a writer and performer.

Christine: And, every time I came across one of these giant poops I would get an old snow shovel and scrape up the poops and walk next door to Suzanne’s house and dump them at the base of her mailbox. On this one particular summer day, I was walking over there with another giant poop on my snow shovel and she was waiting for me. And she was mad. And she got really close to my face. And she said you FAT ASS CANCER BITCH!

(RITCHIE) Every summer Christine performs a new version of her one-woman show Fat Ass Cancer Bitch. It’s inspired by her neighbor’s harsh words. The show is part stand up, part poetry, and part storytelling.

Christine:  Each year is whatever is going on. It’s often political. It’s always extremely personal. It’s always autobiographical. It’s always true.

(RITCHIE) When Christine performs, her words barrel out with an arresting confidence. She is bold and brash and isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.  It’s hard to imagine now, but Christine wasn’t always so outspoken and open about her life.

Christine: I was a solitary, moody kid. I had a terrible stutter. So, I became a good writer I think or I became a writer who needed to be very clearly understood because I didn’t feel like I could do that with my voice.

(RITCHIE) When Christine was a teenager, she told her mother her dreams of becoming a writer.

Christine:  And she said, “Oh Chris, you could do that for fun. You should be a nurse or a teacher.” So, I continued writing but sort of secretly.

(RITCHIE) For years, Christine journaled in private. She wrote herself through her twenties, through two failed marriages, and through the birth of her daughter Marnie.

By the time Christine was 34, she was working full-time and raising 6-year old Marnie alone.  They were the little family that could. But then, Christine got cancer.

Christine:  We sat at the kitchen table with cups of tea and I told her I would have a mastectomy and what that was. And, she thought for a minute, stood up from her chair and she put her hand on her hip and she said Mom, that’s OK. I finished nursing a long time ago. And then we laughed. Because she knew that she’d made a joke. And then a little while later, she skipped around the kitchen table and she thrust her little chest out and said you should have them both off and you can look just like me. And the words that she said to me that day became a leaping off point for the writing that I needed to do.

(RITCHIE) Christine wrote herself through the cancer.  She wrote to make sense of what was happening.

Christine -  My recording of the cancer journey itself, the hospital, the treatment, somehow kept it the right size and shape.

(RITCHIE) Christine’s writing had a lot of serious and poignant moments, but there was also so much that made her laugh.  

Christine: Like the things people said to me.   Like, the man who offered his condolences when I called my insurance to find out what was covered and what wasn’t and I told him I wasn’t dead yet.

(RITCHIE) Finally, after years of writing and a ton of treatments, Christine was cancer free. But, there were still issues about cancer she struggled with. She didn’t like being known as a cancer survivor first, and a person second.

Christine: it was 5 years after I’d been diagnosed and I’d been through all my chemo and I was in remission. I was healthy as a horse and yet, people were still treating me like a survivor, like I was wounded.

(RITCHIE) It was then - healthy and completely cancer free, that Christine’s neighbor called her the Fat Ass Cancer Bitch. Christine was ignited.

Christine: We are surrounded by sick women whose stories we don’t know. And I realized I had something that maybe other young cancer patients could benefit...I began performing as the Fat Ass Cancer Bitch.

(RITCHIE) – Now, every summer Christine writes a new version of her show.

Christine: The months of June and July are pretty hairy around here. I’m all inside my writing head, gathering the work, stitching it together, editing it, and fixing it and reconstructing it. But when it soars. There’s nothing like that feeling.

(RITCHIE) And remember her neighbor Suzanne. She eventually apologized.  

Christine: She walked into the house, and told me I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I called you that. You don’t have a fat ass. 

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This piece came to us from our production partners at Atlantic Public Media through their media training program: The Transom Story Workshop in Woods Hole.  Nora is a graduate from the Fall 2016 workshop  - you can find out more about the program at Transom.org.

Creative Life is edited by Jay Allison and made possible by the Circle of Ten - ten local businesses and organizations committed to local programming on WCAI.