He doesn’t work out.
“It’s because I cough so much,” said Saunders, who lives with cystic fibrosis. “There’s all these perks to CF. It’s the worst disease. It’s so awful. It’s such a bummer. But. . . I have a really killer six pack.”
It’s this ability to see the positive ina brutal illness that has made Saunders and his two buddies, Taylor MacGillivary and Brian Stever, the popular hosts of a boundary-pushing new podcast, called Sickboy. Episodes take on the sentiment of Saunders’ own devil-may-care approach to sickness as the Halifax trio tackle everything from anorexia to cancer to PTSD. They post one episode a week featuring interviews with subjects who alternate between bursts of laughter and heartfelt confessions.
“We’re just kind of exploring and looking for the humour in an otherwise dark situation,” said Saunders, a 27-year-old actor and yoga teacher, in a phone interview with the Star. “What we are laughing at is the absurdity of illness.”
And they don’t sugarcoat it.
“I remember coming in to do this barium enema and I’ve got the most gorgeous doctor,” he recalls. “I was like oh my God this is amazing… until she pulls out this giant tube with a balloon attached to it. And then she has to stick that thing up my butt.”
As a teen, he was ashamed of the disease that gave him uncontrollable coughing fits and forced him to take pills every time he ate. He felt weird and acted out by refusing to take his medication — a move that sometimes landed him in the hospital.
The podcast has risen from small potato beginnings. They recorded the first podcast in a Halifax library on a whim back in June and launched a Kickstarter campaign that netted $ 13,000, helping them build a recording studio at Stever’s home. Sickboy garnered 25,000 downloads in 90 days and was named one of iTunes best of 2015 Canadian podcasts.
“You rarely hear this young voice… talking about illness in a fun, positive way, ” said Henderson, who brought a bottle of champagne to the Toronto interview. “I just want a pamphlet that says, ‘Live your f****** life. Go to the club, party.’”
Henderson has the same blunt, humorous approach to disease as the Sickboy guys do.
When he stops joking about cancer, it wins, he said. But he also understands the podcast might be hard for otherwise healthy people to listen to.
“We don’t have the same comfort level with illness as we do with other social topics. People panic,” Henderson says, thinking of the times he shared his diagnosis with friends. “What I got a lot of the time was pity, which is really isolating.”
That fear around conversations about illness is exactly what Saunders, MacGillivary and Stever hope to tear down. It’s the reason why they don’t sidestep personal questions, censor swearing or edit out the numerous male genitalia jokes.
“We want to eliminate the awkwardness and discomfort that sometimes comes with speaking about illness. It just adds to stigma and shame and embarrassment,” Saunders says.
They respect that not everyone who’s sick is going to be ready to joke — and they’re adamant that they recognize the seriousness of disease — but they see more benefit in tackling tough issues with infectious laughter than they do in avoiding talking about sensitive subjects.
Indeed, healthcare experts say there are measurable benefits to adopting a positive attitude, both physiologically and psychologically. People who have positive emotions tend to have lower blood pressure, less stress and better sleep, experts say.
And if that attitude seems entirely out of reach for someone who’s sick, “change it up,” advises Saunders. Read a different book, listen to different music or watch a new TV show — it’s better than the alternative, he said.
“You can choose to be taken down and dragged down because of your circumstances and that’s a really easy route,” Saunders said. “But there’s something so much more liberating in trying to find the humour in that dark situation.”