Minnesota cancer survivor, comedian refuses to let cancer have last laugh

There are two words you wouldn't think of using in the same sentence: cancer and comedy.  But a Minnesota comedian and cancer survivor is doing just that -- combining a sense of humor with healing. 

And now he's inspiring others to find laughter in unlikely places.  Scott Burton, a former street performer and longtime stand-up comic, is all about the laughs.

"I think if you allow for the humor in anything, generally you'll find it,” Burton said.

But sometimes in life, the joke is on us.  And sometimes, that joke is cruel.  In 1992, at just 30-years old, Burton was diagnosed with a high grade bone cancer.

"I said ‘well what are my odds?’ He said ‘for the most people, kids who have this kind of cancer, it's 50/50.’ And I said, ‘but I'm older.’ And he said ‘oh ya. So then yours are lower.’"

A young man, with a young family to take care of, Burton had a lot to live for. But for the first time in his life, he didn’t have much to laugh about.  

"And so I was just fighting, fighting, fighting and I couldn't get out of it and I was just like ‘I'm done. I'm not talking to you, I'm not talking to anybody, I'm out,’" Burton said.  

But those feelings of defeat were short-lived. While going through treatment in the hospital, an awkward moment with his brother reignited Burton’s sense of humor and determination.

"And he was.. he was already uncomfortable. Two guys in a room talking about prostate exams and you could just feel that tension. So I just kind of waited a little bit. And I just kind of went, 'are they supposed to use a puppet?'. And it really just melted everything,” Burton said.

For the first time in months, Burton felt alive. From that point on, he started to find the humor not so much in his cancer, but around it. He also decided he wanted to help others find hope in humor. 

At Gilda's club, a Twin Cities cancer support center, Burton leads dozens of survivors and supporters in an exercise of faith -- asking them to let go and have a laugh at cancer's expense.  With every laugh, the air in the room gets lighter, a euphoric feeling when it all comes together.

But sometimes, that level of vulnerability is too much, too soon.

"I was in the middle of my show and a fellow was walking out and I, maybe it's the street theater background, and I kind of heckle them when they leave. And he turns and goes 'I don't think this is funny. My wife dies of cancer and I don't think there's anything funny about it.' And it was such a wonderful moment, because there's where I could go, 'You're right. There's nothing funny about cancer. We're not laughing our way to good health. We're not laughing our way through cancer. What we're acknowledging is that life is still present. And as long as life is still present, express it. And laughter is a wonderful tool for that,'" Burton said.

It’s a tool, never intended to be a fix-all, but a gentle invitation to allow people to find the humor in anything.

"It's more like a handshake,” Burton said. “It's more like my saying I'm there for you."

He's refusing to let cancer have the last laugh -- “Everyone knows the sad stories, so I want to get us in touch with the moments where you just kind of go, ‘it's good to be here.’”

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