Hooters, moles and parenthood: Katherine Ryan’s cancer story

Ahead of Channel 4’s Stand Up to Cancer, the comedian reveals how she has to joke about her brush with cancer

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When Katherine Ryan says she came to Britain “for the weather”, she’s not entirely joking. “Your overcast weather is good for the skin,” explains the Irish-Canadian comedian.

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Ryan, a regular panellist on Mock the Week, Eight Out of Ten Cats Does Countdown and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, is scrupulously careful of her pale complexion. “I’m like a jellyfish colour of white,” she says. “My skin tries to kill me.” 

Twelve years ago, Ryan was diagnosed with Stage 2 skin cancer and she now has a sizeable scar on her thigh where a chunk of flesh the size of a golf ball was removed. It’s a reminder, she insists, of good fortune: “The cancer wasn’t that serious. It wasn’t into my lymph nodes, I didn’t have to have chemotherapy.

“It did recur, but it was easily dealt with. I feel like I was really lucky just to get that lesson, that little smack on the arse of ‘Hey, wait a minute. Listen to your body, here.’ ”

Ryan, 33, is part of the celebrity line-up raising funds and awareness for Channel 4’s 2016 Stand Up to Cancer telethon (see our full guide here). Her experience of the disease dates from her student days, when she was studying Urban Planning at Toronto University and working part-time for Hooters, a chain of US sports bars famous for its cheerleader-style waitresses.

“It’s not perhaps aspirational, as a feminist, to get a job where you are decoration,” she admits, “but there are very many bars where the waitresses wear little skimpy outfits and, with Hooters, I always felt it was satirical.”

“Maybe it’s not meant to be as satirical as I found it, but it’s not like it’s a titty bar; it’s a very sporty look. I had all my clothes on, but this little section of my thigh was showing and one day, my co-worker, Jordan, said to me, ‘Ew, that mole on your leg looks funny.’

“I was like, ‘Naah, it’s fine.’ I just didn’t think twice about it. In retrospect, it didn’t even look that strange, just a bit discoloured, but I think your body has a way of warning you when things aren’t right. I developed a rash on my chest, and I went to a dermatologist for that, because I was 21 years old and, to me, this was a cosmetic issue.

“The doctor gave me some ointment for the rash, and I was walking out the door when I turned and, as an after – thought, said, ‘Oh, and my friend says I have this funny thing on my leg.’ ”

Tanning had never been a priority for Ryan (“I was always the one with my shirt over my face in the sun”) so she was surprised when a biopsy revealed Stage 2 melanoma.

“Even then, I didn’t feel like it was super serious,” she recalls. “I think when you’re young, you just feel invincible. I was kind of numb about it, then I rang to tell my parents – very matter of fact – and my dad cried.

“He lost his father to cancer, and there was Stage 4 melanoma, which is tough to beat, on my mum’s side of the family. That kind of brought things home to me. You’re so selfish when you’re young, you don’t care. I was this very laissez-faire 21-year-old, and I didn’t get scared. But then you see your dad cry. You see how it affects your family. Until cancer happens to you, you wouldn’t believe how many people care about you and are scared for you.”

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Now a parent herself – her daughter is seven – Ryan is “super-vigilant” about UV protection and wears a hat, even in winter in London. “I’m also bringing back the parasol,” she adds. “Like an absolute tit.

“It’s one thing being someone’s child, and thinking, ‘Oh, these people need me to be OK,’ but now as someone’s mother, especially as a single mother, I see how devastating a cancer diagnosis can be. To be someone’s mother who knows that she’s ill and maybe isn’t going to be there for her child – I just can’t imagine how you battle that.

“My experience of cancer was not a battle, it was one surgery – in and out – and I’ve since had various moles removed under local anaesthetic, which is nothing at all. But some people have a real fight on their hands.

“And it’s not just better cures or treatments they need – they also need support to deal with that emotional weight of thinking about your children or the various people who depend on you – which is what Stand Up to Cancer is all about.”

Laughing in the face of this most feared disease is, says Ryan, an affirmative action. “Having had this short brush with cancer, I’d joke about it now and then, because that’s what I do; that’s how I make loads of things better. I like to find light in the dark.

“And people have been very disapproving and said, ‘Ooh, but my auntie had cancer.’ And I think, ‘Well, of course your auntie had cancer. And her brother. And his cousin. And his cousin’s friend. That’s the entire point about cancer. It touches us all.” 

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Stand Up to Cancer starts 7pm tonight, C4