'My cancer diagnosis: Guilt' – Sean Kent

January 15, 2013 | by Roberta Nichols

One in a series of stories asking former patients to reflect upon their experience ...

As a stand-up comedian for nearly two decades, Sean Kent has delivered his fiercely honest and darkly funny observations to audiences around the world. Yet perhaps nowhere does he connect as well – and as deeply – as he does with audiences at City of Hope.


Sean Kent Comedian and former Hodgkin lymphoma patient Sean Kent with his wife and two daughters. (Photo courtesy of Sean Kent)


“Speaking at the City of Hope Reunion tomorrow,” Kent tweeted from @seankent to his minions last spring. “Thousands of cancer survivors celebrating our collective existence.  My fav gig every year.”

He has earned street cred with the disparate crowd at the reunion because they all have gone through the same crucible: cancer treatment. This year marks his 10th year as a cancer survivor – and his eighth year headlining the annual Celebration of Life Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion.

Born and raised in Austin, Texas, Kent came to Hollywood in 1994 to pursue acting and stand-up.  For years he paid his dues, performing in local comedy clubs and sleeping in his car and on friends’ couches.  Finally he landed his first break, as a writer on Fox Sports Net’s “The Best Damn Sports Show Period.”

Soon, however, he started noticing “lots of little tumors” on his neck but, lacking health insurance, he kept working.  Finally, when he became too tired to finish a jog one day, he went to a doctor – and was diagnosed with stage III Hodgkin lymphoma.

Kent started chemotherapy while continuing to keep up 60-hour work weeks.  After a punishing three months, he was told he was in remission.

In the meantime, he got his second Hollywood break on NBC’s reality show “Last Comic Standing,” wearing a cowboy hat to conceal his stubbly new hair. Before the show aired, however, the lymphoma returned and his only shot at survival was a bone marrow transplant. He came to City of Hope under the care of Neil Kogut, M.D.,  director, City of Hope-Kaiser  Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation Program.

Kent says the recurrence hit him nearly as hard as the original diagnosis. “It was a like a bomb going off in my life. I had to watch everyone around me, everyone who cared for me, suffer because of my cancer. It was a little, private hell.”

In an interview with Major League Baseball for ThinkCure, the Dodgers charity that raises money for research at City of Hope and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Kent recalled that when he was a patient he suspended his comedic bravado to survive the rigors of treatment.

This year, as he celebrates a decade of survivorship, 38-year- old Kent is happily married and has two young daughters. He has resumed his ambitious performing schedule and already has penciled in May 10 for City of Hope’s 37th annual BMT reunion.

We asked Kent to look back at the time of his diagnosis, and ask himself, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? What wisdom, soothing words, practical tips or old-fashioned advice would you give your newly diagnosed self?

He responded with so much good advice that we're posting it in six installments.  Following is the first, titled "Guilt."


When I was diagnosed I knew instinctively that I’d feel fear, that I’d feel sadness, that I’d feel great physical and emotional pain.

What I didn’t know was I’d feel massive amounts of guilt.

Let me explain …

You see, when you get diagnosed it doesn’t just change your life forever. The people closest to you are greatly, seriously affected by it too, and they may not always handle this in the most thoughtful of ways.

First of all, they don’t want to lose you. They are terrified of losing you. They feel helpless and sad and without even meaning to they will let you know what your cancer is doing to them. This can lead to feelings of resentment and guilt toward them on top of everything else you’re dealing with.

Please do not let this happen. I repeat: Do not ever let yourself get sucked into feeling guilty about being sick. I did and it was one of the hardest parts of my battle. In fact, it turned out to be my greatest emotional foe.

So in case you don’t know this, let me tell you once and for all: Cancer is not something you did to anyone. Rather, it is something that happened to you. You bear no blame. You deserve to carry no one’s sorrows but your own.

Now you can certainly listen to your loved ones as they grieve, as they panic, as they vent. You can even be a shoulder for them in a situation where you need the shoulder.

But ultimately when it gets too much, you have to let them know that this is about you.

If they still don’t get it, then demand they go to a support group for caregivers. They’re out there. Find one and send them on their way.

You also have to remind yourself that people aren’t perfect. This is not a Lifetime movie and not everyone is going to be there for you in the way you want or expect them to be.

So above all, you must understand that they are going through this too, that they are human and fallible. So then you must let it go.

You will feel greatly wronged and slighted by loved ones. Many times during this process you will be let down or hurt by some of the people closest to you. Don’t hold it against them. Let it go.

Relax. Breathe. Empathize. Understand. Heal.

Talk to someone who understands. Go to your support group and find out this happens to everyone. Remind yourself that life is a funny, bumpy, surprising journey that sometimes isn’t so grand.

But most of all, never get bitter toward the ones you care about. Never lose the power to love people, to forgive them.

Cancer can take so many things from you. It can take your time, it can take your strength, your fertility, your pride, your hair, your looks …

Never let it take your heart.

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