I first met Judy Fabjance when I was performing on the Mainstage at The Second City Chicago. She was a host that greeted and sat the audience. We also taught in The Second City Training Center at the same time. Judy’s students lead with kindness, are rooted in teamwork and are ready and excited to learn. And in a place with its share of tensions and competition for stage time Judy had an inviting energy that seemed to appeal to everyone who worked there.

I spoke with Judy about her breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent bouts of cancer which are featured in her acclaimed shows Are you there Judy? It’s me Cancer and Tales of A Stage 4 Cancer as part of my series about embracing the unexpected.

Tania: What brought you to Second City?

Judy: My brother. He took Second City classes. Plus we went as a family  to see the Mainstage show pretty much every year. I thought it was so cool that these people-all they have are these bentwood chairs and glow tape.

[Second City’s set design always includes 6 bentwood chairs that the improvisers use within scenes as furniture, props and anything else their imaginations inspire.]

Judy:  I asked my parents if I could take an Improv class at Second City Northwest [even though] I was suuuuper introverted. It was like, “This is my fantasy to be able to be funny and talk to people and be on stage.”

[Judy started taking classes at The Second City Northwest in Rolling Meadows which has since closed. She was the only teenager amongst a classroom of adults.]

Judy: Luckily, everyone said I had an old soul so I wasn’t this obnoxious teenager in this adult program.

[Thursday through Sunday Judy regularly watched the improvisation sets at The Second City Northwest. Amy Sedaris one of The Second City Northwest resident performers was friends with Judy’s teacher Dave Razowsky.]

Judy: Amy came out to see our student show.  She asked me, “What do you want to do?” I told her, “I want to work at Second City.”

[Amy got Judy a job at The Second City by introducing Judy to Cheryl Sloane one of Second City’s producers.]

Judy: I was 19 then. I continued to hold different positions at Second City and take classes. When I was 21 Gayco started.

[Judy was an original ensemble member of Gayco (created in 1996) the first Chicago improv troupe that specialized in sketch comedy revues based on gay/lesbian themes.]

Tania: In the meantime had you started teaching?

Judy: No, I started teaching in ’99.  I was administrative assistant in the training center and back in the day it was a little more loosey-goose[y] with the “showing up on time” and things like that. So, teachers would call me and say, “I’m running 15 minutes late will you go warm-up my students?” So I would do that. And then Martin DeMaat [the Artistic Director of the Training Center] would hear good things about me.

Tania: I love that teaching found you in a way because it seems to be one of your passions.

Judy: I love it. Between that and doing our cancer show and of course my daughter those are my passions.

Tania: What led you to your diagnosis? Were you having pain?

Judy: I felt the tiniest lump in my right breast like a pencil eraser. I went to the doctor to have it checked out but it was so strange because I went to a Gynecologist and she said, “Is there anything else?” I said, “Yes! I have this lump!” And she felt it and couldn‘t feel anything but said, “… You know your body. So I am going to send you over to get a mammogram and an ultra sound.”

Tania: That’s striking to me because sadly I think today some doctors might try to talk a woman out of it.

Judy: Yes! In fact we just got home from a breast cancer conference  [Young Survival Coalition] I hear so many stories from women [who were told], “You’re too young. Come back.” There was an Asian woman giving a speech and her doctor said, “You’re Asian. Asians don’t get breast cancer.”

Tania: Do you recall your thoughts when you heard that you had breast cancer?

Judy: Yes. I felt like the world was in a frozen picture and I was just walking through it. That was right around Halloween that I was diagnosed. We did the mastectomy on Christmas Eve. So that was fun.

Tania: My Lord. What else was in the plan?

Judy: They did a lymph node dissection to see if there was any breast cancer there. They found a tiny bit of breast cancer in my lymph nodes so then early January I had [23] lymph nodes removed under my right arm.

Tania: Who helped take care of you?

Judy: My family helped: That’s right around the time I started getting closer to Kelly and she came out to visit sometimes and watched movies with me.

[Kelly is now Judy’s wife. Judy and Kelly were legally married in New York. They had their wedding ceremony and reception in the e.t.c theatre at The Second City. Judy was previously in a 10 year relationship with a woman named Heather. They became parents to Daphne who is now 8 years old. Heather is the biological mother and Judy adopted Daphne. Judy and Kelly are with Daphne every other week.]

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Tania: So! What compelled you to write your show?

Judy:  I was done with my treatment and in remission for three years. I had been journaling a lot throughout about the doctor appointments-taking notes. [For instance] I was at the plastic surgeon’s waiting room office and I had my back to the TV and I’m listening to this segment about, “First you take the breast and then you carve it…” And I was like, “Oh my Gosh what are they showing?” And I turned around and it was a Martha Stewart cooking [segment] and I was like, “This is funny. I am writing this down.”

[Judy had a sold-out run of Are You There Judy? It’s Me Cancer in Donny’s Skybox Theatre at The Second City Chicago.]

Tania: When did you learn that the cancer returned?

Judy: 2012. I wasn’t having any symptoms but my oncologist said, “Hey, it’s been awhile since we’ve done any tests. Why don’t we do a scan?  So it came back that there was cancer in my lungs, lymph nodes, my collarbone, my tailbone, some ribs and my tenth vertebrae.

[Judy now had metastatic breast cancer (Stage IV) because the cancer had spread to organs beyond the breast.)

Tania: Was it just utter shock?

Judy: Yeah. It was utter shock because I didn’t have any symptoms.

Tania: And what was the plan for the second round?

Judy: I did a lot of chemo for this. I did twelve rounds of chemo.

[In 2013 around September Judy started having horrible headaches and migraines that were making her vomit. She went through a series of tests and they discovered 8 tumors in her brain. She qualified for gamma knife radiation which goes after the tumors instead of the whole brain. The treatment has been working. The tumors are still there but they are smaller and she is no longer getting migraines. ]

Tania: Are you defying the odds at his point?

Judy: Yeah. When I was first diagnosed as metastatic and even with the tumors in the brain I just said, “I don’t want to have this conversation about how long you think I have to live.” And so my doctor respected that and said, “Great. You tell me if or when you want to have that conversation.” My doctor said to me that we can consider this a chronic condition like diabetes. [I’ll] be in treatment [my] whole life.

Tania:  You don’t seem to let anything keep you down. Has that been the case from the get go?

Judy: From the get go—I mean it’s obviously like a rollercoaster and some days you just want to sleep all day but most days I’m like, “Let’s go. Let’s talk about this.” I talked Kelly into writing our second show Tales of a Stage 4 Cancer.  And it’s been so therapeutic for both of us. The show had a run in the Skybox and in the summer it will have a run at The IO Theater.

[Judy also regularly attends support group at Gilda’s Club in Chicago]

Tania: It strikes me that some people may think that the process is about embracing the fact that you are going to die but for you it’s really a process of embracing how you are going to live. Despite this unexpected diagnosis you have embraced your life by writing about your cancer, marrying Kelly, being Daphne’s mom. It’s a different way of looking at a diagnosis.

Judy: Yeah.

Tania: How do you handle all of this in relation to Daphne?

Judy: I have a piece in the show about Daphne about my experience with me breaking down crying. I never cry. There was a few days after we found out that the breast cancer had spread to my brain and I was putting her to bed and I sing songs and I was a few lines into this song and I just started sobbing. And she was so sweet she just sat up immediately and was Like, “what’s wrong Mommy what’s wrong?” And I was like, “I’m so scared and I don’t want to have cancer anymore and I want to be with you forever.” She was just so sweet and she kept rubbing my face and telling me it was okay. And the sweetest part about it was she said, “If I could make it better I would.” I just read the title of this article about how cancer patients if you smell a fart how that is supposed to help cure your cancer. So Daphne goes around passing gas in my face all the time and then she says, “Take a whiff, Mommy. Take a whiff.”

Tania: How do you feel you have embraced this turning point in your life and managed to deal with it the way you have. What’s your secret?

Judy: I wish I knew what the secret was. I’m just so happy that I do have this positive outlook. I don’t feel like I’m holding in the anger. I let myself feel the feelings I’m having. At the breast cancer conference I took some metastatic breast cancer workshops and I felt so out of place because I didn’t feel the anger that everybody had. I was like, “Hey, come look at these videos on my website and you’ll totally understand it and make it a little humorous.” www.beefabproductions.com

Tania: Do you think that is because of where you are “from” (Second City)? I joke that being a part of The Second City is like being a member of the mafia-you never really leave. It’s an imprint.

Judy: You are completely right. When [I ] think of [my] path in life I think, “That is why I took classes all those years. So I can do these shows and have it touch everyone’s life.” I [took] classes and who knew that 24 years later it would be for these cancer shows.

Tania: Well I celebrate you Judy. And I think your story will resonate with a lot of folks whether they have a diagnosis or not.

Judy: Thank you for thinking of me.

[A longer version of this interview is featured in my upcoming bookUnexpected Life: Interviews About Embracing the Unexpected a companion piece to my book My So-Called Unexpected Life: 10 Things I Did to Meet and Marry My Man, Be A Stepmom, Have Babies and Embrace the Life I Never Knew I Wanted.