© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2021

FRINGE: Recovery

Gerrit Gray Doppenberg
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Joanna Prendergast at her home  Gerrit Doppenberg

Joanna Prendergast has always had a lot on her plate.

She works as a psychiatrist in Christchurch in the day, and at night is a prolific improv performer and stand-up comedian whose talent has taken her all around the country. She was also writing a book on mental health – and gearing up for another round of fringe festivals.   

But in May 2021, everything changed.  

“I was rubbing my ribs one night and I found a lump, just to the side of my breast and went uh, that doesn’t feel right. And the next day I felt under the armpit and felt a lump there as well. 

“I was pretty sure it was going to be cancer from the beginning.”  

Prendergast was diagnosed with stage 2, grade 3 ductal carcinoma with lymph node involvement. She says the cancer was relatively serious – but true to form – she got to work.  

“The night I found out I had cancer, I just remember just lying there going okay, this is a really good thing I can have for my next solo show. I might write a book about it. Maybe it would be good to do a documentary about it. I wonder what I’ll find out about having cancer that I can share with people. 

A documentary crew is now following her around, documenting her treatments. She’s journaling her experiences, in hope that she can publish a book on her findings and help others who might be in a worse position.  

“At the moment there’s a lot of, oh I went to see my oncologist, or I hate being on these medications, or really grieving my old life, blah blah blah.”  

One of the concepts she became enamoured with was decision regret. With a condition like cancer, time is short, and information is vital. She says as a cancer patient, decisions are being made constantly without the proper frame of mind to really comprehend what you’re being told.  

“I was talking to my surgeon at a follow-up appointment and she thinks that she's genuinely given all of the information possible to the patient, but they don't often realise that the patient's only taken on board a small amount of that information. 

“It's just so much information. Um, so you missed half of it when it was being told to you.” 

She experienced this first- hand when she was told she wouldn’t be receiving chemotherapy first – and instead would be getting surgery to remove cancerous cells in her lymph nodes. 

“I had a bit of a kind of shock to process that my treatment plan was way different than what was the original plan. So that meant that I hadn't thought about surgery, questions to ask. I wasn't in a surgery mindset.” 

Prendergast was born in Wellington in 1969 and grew up in the Karori region. She remembers fondly a youth spent exploring the wilderness of the region, being able to go out with friends, riding horses and building forts.  

“It was living in a city suburb, with kind of a rural feel.”  

Prendergast lives on the outskirts of Christchurch on a lifestyle block. Horses remain a large part of her life as she wanted her daughter to experience the same joy and lifestyle the animal brought to her youth.  

“It's very cool riding horses and cantering down the road or down the beach. It's quite a liberating feeling. The riding and being sort of one with an animal.”  

Joanna Prendergast with her dog Troy
Joanna Prendergast with her dog, Gerrit Doppenberg

Prendergast studied medicine at the University of Otago, spending a year as a junior doctor in Wellington before leaving to Sydney and specialising in psychiatry.  

“It was the part of medicine that interests me the most. I much prefer talking to people than chopping them up or listening to their chests. 

“Seeing what can happen to the brain when people are mentally ill and how you might be able to improve their symptoms and just talking to people is what I love doing. That's basically why I went into psychiatry - I found it the most interesting part of medicine. 

For such a serious job, it seems strange to have a side hobby like comedy. But Prendergast says she’s always had a knack for performing, even at a young age.  

“My parents always report that basically as soon as I could walk and talk, I was putting on shows for people. If my parents had people around for drinks or coffee, I'd be like doing cartwheels and various flips off the sofa and then like doing a little dance and song.  

“I think my parents encouraged that. Instead of saying, would you stop being annoying? Go, go away, it was kind of like, oh, everyone watch my beautiful little cute kid doing a show. And so everybody would be forced to watch the show. 

“I just kind of went okay, I can entertain a crowd.”  

She quickly grew to love the dramatic arts, enrolling in productions and community theatre groups. She received her colours in drama  at Samuel Marsden Collegiate – the highest award a school gives for excellence in a field. But it was in Australia, she discovered improv.  

“That worked really well with having young kids and a busy job. I could just go and do one night of jams or workshops a week and then do a show. I didn’t have to do any other rehearsing. You develop the skills and then just entertain.”  

After moving back to New Zealand and settling in Christchurch in 2004 to give her kids a better lifestyle. Prendergast was in an improv workshop when the instructor suggested she try stand-up comedy – a craft she had a knack for. She developed a persona, “Jo Ghastly” - a much more exaggerated version of herself, extremely sarcastic.  

But her best material developed from her home. 

Her children grew to be teenagers, and the experience of raising and trying to relate to them is what really clicked with audiences. Prendergast knew she had a winning formula, and developed her first hour long show - “The Cool Mum”.  

“I kind of put it into a parody of a personal development seminar - that I was a kind of international celebrity on personal development.” 

She toured around New Zealand with the show, performing at multiple fringe festivals. She says the show is received well and hopes that in the future after she’s put the cancer to bed she can perform and tour more.  

 

Jo Ghastly
"Jo Ghastly" is Joanna's comedic alter ego Andi Crown

But her performance now is in front of a video camera, documenting her journey through the New Zealand medical system. She knows it’s an uphill battle for cancer patients, but hopes that through her journey and medical knowledge, the next person who gets breast cancer will hopefully have a smoother time.  

“I'm going to use this experience in a positive way. So that even the really shitty patches have a purpose. I can document them. I can let other people know.”  

Prendergast is hoping to spread awareness of “cold capping” - which she says is a way for cancer patients to try to keep their hair during chemotherapy. It’s a type of hat a patient  will put on their head, which is filled with a cooling gel that is thought to reduce blood flow to the scalp -preserving hair follicles. The cooling gel has to be replaced every 25 minutes, something Prendergasts husband Marty religiously does to help her preserve her hair. She says keeping your hair is something that could have a remarkable effect on a patient’s mental well-being.  

“For a lot of women losing their hair has a really big mental health impact as their whole sense of identity is tied to their hair. Whether you've got like big curly hair or long hair,    hair, identity and self are really tied together. 

“So suddenly against your will losing all your hair in three weeks is incredibly traumatic. Cold capping has individual variation, but I’m up to my third chemo now and I’ve got pretty much all my hair.”  

She’s been developing a website to better publicise the treatment for cancer patients and contacting hospitals and foundations to increase the funding for and availability of cold capping.  

“I'm sure it helps me to feel healthier and more normal going through chemo. I look in the mirror and go that's normal me. Whereas if I was bald, I think that would really affect me. I'd feel like a chemo patient all day.  

“Every day, every time I looked in the mirror, it would be chemo, cancer.” 

And maybe it's this relentless drive that’s helping her through this process. It’s the rolling tide of Prendergast, constantly thinking about how to make her situation better and help others. When she falls, she lands on her feet and keeps going, with the support of the family around her. She's using her experience to hopefully help others on the fringes of positive health outcomes towards better health outcomes – both physical and mental. A documentary, a book on the go, a show to write, and all the while evicting what she calls the unwanted squatter on her boob.