Nobody expects to get cancer in college.
Alex Kip was just 23 when he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
But the musical theater major at the University of Michigan was about to get even more bad news.
Young adults are the only cancer patients whose survival rates are not improving.
Now cancer-free, Kip is trying to help others, using what he knows best: theater.
What cancer looks like when you're 23
“My Other Voice” is the result. It’s a play, and yes, it’s about cancer.
But it’s also about falling in love, and how powerless that can feel.
Especially when you fall for another young cancer patient as her last hopes for alternative treatments are slipping away.
And it’s about the uncomfortable, persistent questions about God, tragedy and spirituality that flood in when college-age adults have both cancer and a ready supply of medical marijuana.
Basically, it’s what cancer looks like when you’re 23.
It begins when lead character Alex Kip, played by now 26-year-old real life Alex Kip, loses his voice right before the most important auditions of his college career.
What his friends assume is likely adult asthma turns out to be a tumor the size of a sheet of paper pressing against his lungs.
“In a weird way I wasn’t even thinking about the cancer,” says Kip, who is now in remission.
"When that's who you are, you feel like you've already died."
Today he’s doing yet another press interview about his experiences, the play, and a dozen other achievements (100 mile bike races!) he’s pulled off during and after chemo, radiation, and a long slow recovery.
Those TV spots and local news interviews even get a scene of their own in “My Other Voice.”
Kip’s layered them in a video montage that plays above the stage. It shows the audience how he rallied during some of his hardest moments, outwardly keeping things almost intensely positive and pushing his bald, cancer-thinned body through one athletic gauntlet after another.
But when he first got his diagnosis, cancer wasn't even the main thing on his mind.
“I was thinking, oh, so that’s why I’ve been having vocal issues. Now I can get better. Now my voice can come back.”
You were more concerned with your singing voice recovering than the cancer? Isn’t that … crazy?
“It is crazy! But when that’s who you are, you feel like you’ve already died, in some sense.”
For young adults, cancer means something different
And this is a point Kip wants to make: that the depression, anxiety, and identity struggles that come with cancer can hit young adults differently than, say, a 75-year-old patient.
“Knowing that all my friends are off in New York, auditioning and graduating and doing all that stuff,” Kip says.
“And you’re sort of the one who’s left behind. You know, you’re the one who has to move back in with their parents. You have to leave all those aspirations, all those things you’ve been working for, and you have to literally put it on pause.”
Still, Kip stresses he was more fortunate than a lot of people: he had his family, friends, not to mention affordable insurance.
But there was one thing he didn’t find until after all the chemo and radiation: other young adult patients like him.
That’s where Matthew Zachary comes in. Diagnosed with cancer at 19, he’s now the founder and CEO of stupidcancer.org.
Zachary built the organization to help young adults with cancer get the legal, medical and personal resources.
And to just let them know they weren’t alone.
As just 6% of all cancer diagnoses each year, young adults aren’t usually thinking about cancer risks in the first place.
But it’s one of the biggest killers of people age 15 to 39 (that’s after murder, suicide, or “intentional injury” according to one study).
The push to improve survival rates and awareness
And unlike kids or seniors, the survival rates for young adult cancer patients aren't improving.
Zachary says it’s complicated, but three reasons are pretty clear.
“We’re finding that many young adults are diagnosed late stage,” he says.
“Number two is the fact that young adults don’t really identify with self-risk. You’re entitled to be invincible when you’re 19 years old! And number three, we’re looking at a large percentage of them that go unaware of peer support or age appropriate resources.”
So going from the only young guy in the cancer ward to part of a digital army - that can actually improve your chances of survival?
For Alex Kip, finding people like Matthew Zachary and the StupidCancer.org community inspired him to write this play.
His big picture plan is to take it from Ann Arbor to as many other college campuses as he can.
“You realize that you’re not alone,” says Kip.
“You realize that though you feel like you’re the only young adult who’s ever had cancer, there are a lot. And there are a lot of survivors. And a lot of them are beautiful, strong people. And for me it was like if these people can make a difference at such a young age, then why can’t I?”
If you want to find out more about “My Other Voice,” you can check it out here.
And if you’re looking to just absolutely bawl your eyes out, check out the thank-you video Kip made for his mom.