Hope Workshop fights cancer with comedy

For comedian and cancer survivor Robert Hawke, there’s no better medicine than laughter. He was in Halifax last week to share his message.

By Evan Webster

Robert Hawke addresses the Hope Workshop at the Company House on Thursday (Evan Webster/Peninsula News)
Robert Hawke addresses the Hope Workshop at the Company House on Thursday. (Evan Webster/Peninsula News)

A fight with cancer usually isn’t something to laugh about. But for Robert Hawke, there’s no better medicine.

“I work really hard to find the funny in anything,” Hawke said Thursday in Halifax. “I walked into the operating room, and I was so completely scared that I tried to make everyone laugh!”

Hawke is a comedian, author and activist for cancer awareness. Seven years ago, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Even after his treatment, Hawke battled intense feelings of depression, isolation and anger.

Hawke stresses the importance of looking for help when living with cancer. He needed it himself.

“I walked into my first support group two years after I had the disease,” said Hawke. “I sat down and I went ‘oh, I should have been here a long time ago!’”

The power of laughter

Today, the 49-year-old has dedicated his life to helping others overcome the same struggle. After building a career in comedy with The Second City in Toronto, Hawke started performing for patients and nurses in hospitals during his cancer treatment.

For Hawke, nothing is more rewarding or therapeutic than making a cancer patient laugh. Last October, he created the Hope Workshop so he could do it full time.

The Hope Workshop is a free group session for anyone who has been affected by cancer. For two hours, Hawke leads the group in a series of games, stories and lessons. His goal is to create a sense of community around cancer, share resources, uplift spirits and make people laugh.

“Laughter is our secret weapon in our journey against this disease,” said Hawke.

Hope Workshop in Halifax

Hawke brought the Hope Workshop to Halifax last Thursday.

In front of a crowd of 18 people at the Company House on Gottingen Street, Hawke cracked jokes, shared his own experiences, and led the group in a series of games. His light-hearted banter put smiles on the faces of everyone in the room.

The second half of the evening consisted of a group sharing session followed by some quiet meditation, which Hawke called “the good feeling generator.” After two hours, everyone was laughing together and embracing each other like old friends.

Tamsyn Brennan (left) and Robert Hawke with the Friend's of Gilda's team
Tamsyn Brennan (left) and Robert Hawke with the Friend’s of Gilda’s team. (Evan Webster/Peninsula News)

Tamsyn Brennan, founder of the Friends of Gilda’s Society Nova Scotia, organized the event. The group is a new division of Gilda’s Club, a Toronto-based charity focused on bringing cancer patients together. The organization is named after actress Gilda Radner, who died from ovarian cancer in 1989.

“If you have cancer in your life, you should have a community of support around you,” said Brennan.

Brennan and her team of volunteers have been working for the last three years to establish the Nova Scotia branch of Gilda’s Club. Hawke’s workshop on Thursday was a huge step forward for the charity.

“I thought he was fantastic,” said Brennan. “He really brought to life everything we want to do.”

For Brennan, supportive, uplifting communities like Gilda’s Club and the Hope Workshop are crucial for keeping cancer patients positive.

“There’s a real need for people to get together and to help each other,” said Hawke. “I think that’s a major win.”

A survivor’s response

Robert Hawke during a quiet moment with the Hope Workshop (Evan Webster/Peninsula News)
Robert Hawke during a quiet moment with the Hope Workshop. (Evan Webster/Peninsula News)

One two-time cancer survivor didn’t know what to expect from the Hope Workshop. But the 29-year-old woman was impressed.

“I thought it was unexpectedly interesting,” said the woman, who didn’t want her name used because no one at her workplace knows she has cancer.

“It’s always interesting when you bring a group of people together and the common denominator is an awful disease. There’s always light that comes from it and conversations that get started,” she said.

For Hawke, the emotional struggle with cancer was worse than the physical one. This aspect of the disease is often overlooked, which is why laughter is such an important form of treatment.

“Humour is such a powerful tool for us to use,” said Hawke.

Hawke plans to improve the Hope Workshop and tour it anywhere he can.

His funny, optimistic approach to life with cancer is outlined in his book entitled Kicking Cancer’s Ass: A Light-Hearted Guide to the Fight of Your Life.

“I want to reach as many people as humanly possible,” said Hawke. “I want to create community and help people realize they have more tools than they think they do. That’s what I want to do.”

For more from Robert Hawke, check out his blog.

An inspiring quote from Gilda Radner (Evan Webster/Peninsula News)
An inspiring quote from Gilda Radner. (Evan Webster/Peninsula News)