Brain cancer, opioid addiction and multiple sclerosis aren’t usually the stuff of laughs. That is, unless they are tackled by the three Canadians behind Sickboy, a boundary-busting podcast that aims to chip away at the stigma associated with chronic and terminal illness.
“There’s not a single person on the planet who’s not affected by illness in some way,” said Jeremie Saunders, one of the podcast’s producers and co-hosts. “If we’re all experiencing it, if we’re all affected by it, why can’t we just talk about it and why can’t we just own up to the experiences that we’re going through?”
The 30-year-old launched Sickboy in 2015 along with two friends, Taylor MacGillivary and Brian Stever. The trio – all yoga instructors in the east coast Canadian city of Halifax – had been batting ideas for a creative project when they landed on an idea inspired by Saunders’ lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis.
“The idea was just to go into a room and have my two best friends ask me all the questions that they would ever want to ask a sick person,” said Saunders. “I wouldn’t hold back and I would answer any questions that they had.”
That’s exactly what they did, recording a conversation that ranged from Saunders’ rage at learning at the age of 10 that cystic fibrosis was fatal, to giggling over the embarrassment that ensued when he fell in love for the first time at age 14 – with the doctor tasked with giving him a barium enema.
When the three of them went back and listened to the conversation, they were floored at what had emerged; a raw, insightful chat which contrasted sharply with popular culture’s often one-dimensional portrayal of illness.
“And it just kind of rolled from there,” said Saunders. “We started this as a bit of a joke. And it very quickly turned into something that was much more important than that.”
As downloads grew to more than 1.5m a year, feedback came pouring in from around the world. Some listeners lauded them for shedding light on an often overlooked experience; others credited the podcast with transforming how they saw their own illness.
More than 750 people from countries around the world have contacted them, eager to have their own experience featured on the show.
For Saunders – whose parents were told that he wasn’t likely to live much past his 20th birthday – speaking openly about his illness didn’t always come easily.
As a child he often tried to hide his struggle with cystic fibrosis, ashamed of his uncontrollable coughing fits or the many pills he had to take. “I didn’t want people to define me by my illness,” he said.
A love of comedy set him on the path of trying to find whatever amusement he could in his own experience. “I started to realise that I do want my illness to define me, but I want it to define me on my own terms,” he said.
He began talking about about his illness, detailing the 40 or so pills he takes each day or the twice-a-day treatments he needs to counteract the steady deterioration that the genetic disease is inflicting on his lungs.
Humour proved to be a potent tool, both in bridging the wide gap between him and those who were healthy but also in chipping away at the power his illness had over him.
“It’s like I was able to sort of take back the power, take back all of the feelings I had felt when I was younger – feelings of shame and all that stuff surrounding my illness – I was able to harness all that and just kind of throw it in the trash,” he said.
The experience informs the podcast’s unconventional approach to illness – one that has left a few listeners bristling at the podcast’s lighthearted take on death and disease. “It’s very rare,” said Saunders. “We often try to challenge that person in a really friendly way, but in a way of like ‘let’s unpack that, why do you feel that way and if we have offended you, what can we do next time to be better?’”
For the two other co-hosts, both of whom are healthy, it can at times be trickier to ensure that guests’ health challenges aren’t trivalised.
“When we first started doing the show, I thought to myself what right do I have to be having these conversations? I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a doctor, I’m not involved in the health care system” said MacGillivary, 27. “But you don’t need to be a psychologist to listen to people and be curious, to approach things with an open manner.”
Illness also has its own way of reinforcing the gravity of the situation; since the podcast launched some three years ago, four of the guests featured on the show have died.
Shortly after Matthew Amyotte, their second-ever guest on the show, died of brain cancer, Saunders listened again to the episode. As he heard Amyotte described his illness with grace and humour, Saunders was overcome with gratitude for the memory he now had of his friend’s indomitable spirit.
“The podcast has just been this beautiful reminder that you never, ever have any idea what someone’s been through,” said Saunders. “We don’t really speak to celebrities or people of note, we’re hearing from regular people – regular, everyday people that you would see walking down the street. And the stories that they have to tell us are mind-blowing and jaw-dropping and fascinating.”