City Centre Mirror
Never had he felt more alive on stage.
Actor-Comedian Daniel Stolfi was eight months into an aggressive two-year chemotherapy treatment after being diagnosed with Acute Non-Hodgkin's T-Lymphoblastic Lymphoma about a year earlier. Weak from the effects of chemo and awake long past his 10 o'clock bedtime, Stolfi felt nothing but the adrenaline rush he gets from performing. It was May 29, 2009 and he was debuting his one-man show 'Cancer Can't Dance Like This' at Second City, one of Toronto's top comedy clubs known for cultivating many of the nation's finest and best known comics.
"For that hour I was on stage, I didn't feel sick," recalled Stolfi at Novera Bakery in his Bloor Street West and Ossington Avenue neighbourhood. In March of 2008 as Stolfi's acting and comedy career was taking off, the then-25-year-old began feeling not quite right. Unable to shake a pesky cough and waking up with night sweats, Stolfi consulted his doctor, who initially thought it was a sinus infection. When his symptoms persisted, Stolfi went back to his doctor, who ordered x-rays of his chest. What he discovered was a grapefruit-size tumour over Stolfi's heart.
"My immediate reaction was shock, disbelief," said Stolfi. "Doctors said, 'If we don't do something immediately, it'll be too late.'"
Overcoming his initial disbelief, Stolfi faced the disease with an optimistic attitude.
"I thought, 'This one was treatable,'" said Stolfi, who conjured up images of cyclist Lance Armstrong, seven-time winner of the Tour de France, who beat testicular cancer and the NHL's Mario Lemieux who overcame Hodgkin's disease. "If those guys could do it, so can I."
At first, Stolfi figured he'd be done with chemo in two to three months and would continue playing soccer, dancing and hanging out with his friends - everything he loved to do. Instead, he was bowled over by the side effects of chemotherapy.
"I thought, 'I can do the whole bald thing,' but I was ignorant to the disease, It was a smack in the face," Stolfi said.
Being on stage is Stolfi's passion and he wondered if he would be able to do what he loved ever again.
Stolfi was always hamming it up as a child. He'd make little films during his childhood and pursued theatre in high school. He credits his sister, who's five years his senior, for his passion for acting as a teen.
"I followed in her footsteps," he said.
Being a sketch comedian, Stolfi began to write sketches while he was sick. At Second City one night with his now girlfriend Jennifer De Lucia, he turned to her and said, 'This is where I want to do my show.'
"She was thinking, 'This guy must be crazy.' I had just had a spinal tap," said Stolfi.
But, he remained undeterred. Determined to get back up on stage, what materialized was a one-man show that chronicles the most physical, mental and emotional journey of his life. A show that tackles his cancer battle that saw him lose his hair, his appetite, his strength and his sex drive - with humour.
"I'm doing jokes about visiting a sperm donor clinic," Stolfi said. "I had it all written and fleshed out. I'd do the rehearsals sitting down."
Only half-way through his treatment and feeling like he inhabited the body of an 85-year-old man, Stolfi's friends thought he was crazy.
"We said, 'Let's do this with you,'" said De Lucia, the show's producer and publicist. "After watching him go through such a heavy time, if he wanted something to happen, we'd make it happen with fireworks."
De Lucia said she is awed by Stolfi's bravery and courage through his illness. She is inspired by his "humble perspective on life" and his "diligence to move forward."
CT and PET scans and MRIs indicated that the tumour was shrinking eight months into his treatment at Sunnybrook Hospital, a discovery that brought tears to his eyes.
In the two months since he completed his two-year chemotherapy cycle, Stolfi says his hair has slowly come back.
"I think people are blown away by the way the body has recovered. I never thought I'd get my body back, my life back," he said.
What else does one have, but his sense of homour, said Stolfi, who has always been "a humourous dude."
There was never any doubt in his mind that his show was going to be a comedy.
"There are serious and dark moments, but it'll quickly turn around and slap you in the face with something funny," said Stolfi.
Never has Stolfi experienced the type of energy and response from an audience than on that first night. It was a sold-out success. His latest show, presented by the New Leaders of Sunnybrook Foundation, will be performed Thursday, July 22 at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (StLC) at 8 p.m. with a reception to follow. Proceeds will go to the much-needed expansion of the Odette Cancer Centre at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre to accomodate the growing number of patients.
Doors open at 7:15 p.m. and the show starts at 8. Tickets are $35 and $45, available online at www.stlc.com or by phone: 416-366-7723 or in person at the StLC, 27 Front St. East.
"I feel like the message and the impact of the show has more dollar amount than any charity," said Stolfi. "I love doing the show. I can never get tired of making people laugh. I'll do it until no one wants to see it anymore."