INDIANAPOLIS — A common sight among the excited youths and silly hats at the biennial National Catholic Youth Conference is comedian Judy McDonald and her service dog Daisy.
But they were unable to make it to this year’s conference in November, and the reason is no laughing matter.
McDonald, 41, was diagnosed with breast cancer Sept. 29. She underwent a double mastectomy Oct. 27.
The surgery was the latest issue that might make McDonald seem like a modern-day Job: an early trauma that led to ongoing post-traumatic stress syndrome; a ruptured disc that resulted in back surgery three years ago; and a car accident that caused Daisy to develop post-traumatic stress disorder as well, limiting where McDonald can travel.
But the comedian is far from letting such setbacks get her down.
“What doesn’t kill you gives you more material,” she quipped to The Criterion, newspaper of the Indianapolis Archdiocese.
In fact, the very day she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she signed up with a group to train for a mini-marathon in her hometown of Vista, California.
“I thought my surgery would be scheduled before the mini, so I’d get to be like, ‘Darn, I can’t do it,'” she said with mock sincerity.
As it turned out, the race was Oct. 22, five days before surgery. McDonald did run — 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.”
“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,” McDonald said.
Instead, she counts her blessings.
“I’m taken care of,” she explained. “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 a positive outlook 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 said. “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 several relatives having cancer — including her mother and one of her sisters having breast cancer — her doctors have been monitoring her health for years even though she was told she didn’t have the gene that put her at greater risk.
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. I still have the occasional freak-out, but it’s getting better,” she explained.
“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.'”
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 said.
“This is the first time I don’t have anything booked for the next year except one (show).”
McDonald joked 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 said, laughing. Being an itinerant minister, she only gets paid when she is performing.
But, she added, “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.
McDonald has some physical healing to do before getting back on the road. Early in 2018, 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 said. “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.”