Dai Henwood: On living with cancer and how to 'squeeze every moment' from life

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Photo: cr. Thievery

4 June 2024

First published on RNZ.

It was almost a relief when his cancer diagnosis was classed as incurable, comedian Dai Henwood says. Dai speaks with RNZ's Susie Ferguson.

Prior to that, he was on a mission to be cured.

"When there was this intent to cure, there was so much pressure on every scan, so much pressure on every blood test, because I wanted it to be gone, I'm fighting for it to be gone," Henwood told Nine to Noon.

"And then when it was sort of incurable, it was like, Okay, we're in maintenance mode."

During Henwood's 25-year career he has won many major comedy gongs, including the Billy T Award, he's a regular on the country's longest running comedy programme, 7 Days - and he's hosted many shows including Family Feud, Dancing with the Stars and LEGO Masters.

His latest project is a memoir, The Life of Dai, co-written with his friend and fellow comedian Jacqui Brown.

Henwood was diagnosed in 2020 when the country was in lockdown.

"It felt like a country-wide sleepover, where no one knew what was happening. No one knew what to do.

"I remember going to a supermarket and there was a guy in a full wetsuit with a snorkel. Everyone was doing everything on the fly."

His own experience with bowel cancer was sadly similar to many others, he said.

"I was misdiagnosed, I had symptoms in 2017 and I saw my GP and then I actually saw a bowel specialist and they missed it.

"I didn't fit the bell curve of who was allowed a colonoscopy. So, I didn't have a colonoscopy at that stage. And then finally, when symptoms got very bad, with a lot of rectal bleeding, my GP really pushed for colonoscopy, and I had one in 2020. So that was almost three-and-a-half, four years after my symptoms came up."

Now Henwood is on a mission to help others living with cancer.

"I'm just trying to help people reframe things, realise that if you've got cancer, you are living with cancer, you need to really squeeze the sponge and squeeze every moment of life out.

"And that doesn't mean ticking [the] bucket list often, running around the world, and mortgaging your house to go to Disneyland.

"It means just enjoying the moment and that could be sitting in looking at a beautiful tree. It could be playing Snakes and Ladders with your kids could be giving your spouse a real hug. You're living, so live now."

Despite undergoing sometimes draining treatment, he was as busy as ever, he said.

"I love my job when I'm performing - that is when I'm at my most Zen, I don't think about anything.

"And cancer is one of those things, anyone with a chronic disease will know this, you think about it. 24/7. So, if you can have a moment where it's not in your mind, and for me when I'm performing, that's when all I'm thinking about is the next joke, the next interview question, and that takes me out of it for a moment, so it's a real tonic."

How he responded to cancer was what defined him, not the cancer itself.

"I'm going to live; I'm going to be happy. Happiness and unhappiness happen in two different parts of the brain, you can have heaps of happiness and heaps of unhappiness all at the same time.

"So, I just thought, I'm gonna try and top that happiness up as much as I can. And how do I do that - tools like meditation really helped for me. Hot and cold therapy really helped for me, like jumping in an ice bath because you literally can't think about anything but how damned cold you are."

Not that he did not not have dark moments, he said.

"I don't want anyone to get this idea that I'm walking around, dancing on rainbows, with a smile on my face all the time, I struggle, I have very dark moments. I have a lot of tears. I have times where it's hard to get out of bed."

The world was neither fair nor unfair, he said.

"Fairness and unfairness are a human construct, the universe isn't fair or unfair, it's just events, and how you respond to the event is what defines you."

His response was to "fill my body with love".

"I send love to my cancer. A lot of people, and I'm not judging anyone here, everyone's journey is different. A lot of people are sort of 'F cancer I'm in this fight', whereas I have been sending love to myself, I actually believe that love is the answer to so much.

"And you can only start by really loving yourself. And it's something I'm working on, just trying to fill my body with love and happiness. And I believe that that will help me overcome this."

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First published on RNZ