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Jack Cloonan – A Survivor’s Story

Today is National Cancer Survivors Day® — a worldwide celebration for those who have survived cancer and is a source of inspiration and support for people all over the world. It’s also an opportunity to show the faces and share the stories of survivors, letting everyone know that life after cancercan be productive, worthwhile and even awe-inspiring.

Jack Cloonan is one such story. At the age of 23, Jack represents what it means not only to survive but to thrive. Before being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in 2011, Jack had already overcome a major health challenge. He was born with biliary atresia, a rare liver disease, and had three liver transplants by the time he was 2 years old. Jack’s cancer diagnosis came in 2011, right after he graduated from high school. After 25 months of chemotherapy and two weeks of radiation, Jack was officially cancer free. His last chemo treatment was September 13, 2013.

But the combination of chemotherapy and the drugs Jack took to combat his liver disease began to take a toll on his joints. After his cancer treatment, he needed several surgeries including a hip replacement and a knee replacement.

Through it all, Jack finds a way to laugh about his experiences. In fact, he spends most of his time making others laugh about it too. As a stand-up comedian, Jack is fulfilling his own lifelong dream. He is determined to make a huge impression as he uses jokes about his life to motivate audiences to overcome their own challenges.

Hope & Heroes: How long have you been doing stand-up comedy? 

Jack: Becoming a comedian was a lifelong dream, I’ve just never been healthy enough to do it until recently. I’ve only been doing comedy for one year and four months. I’m still new as you’re considered new in comedy for the first five years. I do most of my shows in NYC, performing at places like Gotham, Caroline’s and Dangerfield’s. My favorite place is the Comic Strip Live (click here to see a previous performance). But as I tell my friends, “I perform anywhere they’ll put me.” 

Hope & Heroes: What topics do you cover in your routines?

Jack: When you start out in comedy it’s usually a good idea to write jokes about what know you best, and being in the hospital was what I knew best. I joke a lot about my medical life and what it’s like living after all these illnesses. And since my story is so unique, joking about it does help me stand out from everybody else. 

Hope & Heroes: What do you enjoy most about stand-up comedy?

Jack: That’s a great question because there are a few things I really enjoy about stand-up comedy. Obviously, I love to make people laugh. It’s an amazing feeling to step onstage in front of a room full of strangers and make them laugh. I also love to inspire people. My opening joke is about how I beat cancer. I also joke about my transplants and all that because I’m trying to show people that it doesn’t matter what challenges you face, you can overcome anything. And you can still have fun and enjoy life in the process. 

Hope & Heroes: Besides comedy, what else do you do?

Jack: Right now I am in the beginning stages of my career and you don’t really make money in comedy for a long time. But I hope to someday! I’m putting in all the work necessary to make that happen. But aside from comedy, I also do motivational speaking. 

Hope & Heroes: Tell us more about that. What sparked your interest in motivational speaking?

Jack: My friend, Ed Hearn. He was the backup catcher on the ’86 World Series Champion NY Mets. We met in Cooperstown when I about 9 years old. We instantly bonded, and Ed has been my hero and best friend ever since. After his playing career, he had three kidney transplants, cancer, hip replacement, and a lot of other similar issues. When we hang out at events he often introduces me as, “This is my friend Jack, he’s me just younger.” 

Ed is also the only former athlete to become a “Certified Speaking Professional.” Because he’s been speaking for a long time, he’ll give me tips on how I can improve my stage presence. I always figured I’d eventually follow in his footsteps with motivational speaking. With comedy going so well, I figured why not start speaking now? 

Hope & Heroes: In your motivational talks, what is the message that you share with your audiences? 

Jack: It depends because I have several different topics to speak about. But in general, the basic message is that there’s no obstacle too big to overcome and there’s nothing you can’t do. You just have to never give up and not make any excuses. 

Even on my worst, most painful days during cancer treatment, instead of giving up I just kept writing jokes and trying stuff out on my doctors and nurses from my hospital bed. As I’ve said in one of my speeches, “When things get hard, don’t come up with excuses to quit, just find one excuse to succeed.” (See one of Jack’s motivational speeches here.) 

Hope & Heroes: How does your story, whether told through a joke or a motivational speech, affect your audience? 

Jack: It’s very rewarding because a lot of times when I share my story, I almost always get people who come up to me who were either personally affected by cancer or organ donation. They appreciate my message and can take something positive away from it. 

Recently, I was doing a show at the Comic Strip. I got onstage and I noticed this lady was super excited and clapped for me before I even said a word. We spoke after the show and it turns out she’s a transplant coordinator here in NYC. She got excited when she saw my bright green “Donate Life” bracelet that I always wear. So you never know who’s going to be in the crowd and you never know who’s going to be personally affected by what you’ve gone through.

Jack’s story is an inspiration and a real lesson in survivorship. No matter the challenge, he has always believed in himself and dreamed big. In his own words, “There’s just no reason you can’t accomplish what you want to accomplish.” Living each day with confidence and optimism for the future, for us, he embodies the real spirit of National Cancer Survivors Day.

We believe in hope too because it’s something each person facing a life-threatening illness deserves. It also guides the work that we do at Hope & Heroes. Working with the team of researchers, doctors, nurses, and staff at Columbia, we create a treatment experience that not only gives our patients the best care and treatment for childhood cancers & blood disorders but also allows them to fully live and experience as much of their lives as possible. To learn more, visit www.HopeandHeroes.org.

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