Beyond funny Joanna Prendergast’s brave routine

The cancer survivor’s stand-up comedy turns her fears into laughter

By day, Joanna Prendergast is a psychiatrist working to help her clients improve their wellbeing. But by night, she transforms into her alter-ego Jo Ghastly and takes to the stage to perform comedy for audiences across the country.

It’s an unusual combination, but for the 54-year-old, it’s the life she has always dreamed of. When Joanna was a teenager deciding her future, she was torn between studying acting or medicine. With a gentle nudge from her parents, she went to medical school, but she never left her dreams of stardom behind.

While she built her career as a psychiatrist in Christchurch, the mum-of-two regularly appeared in plays and short films, as well as a few small TV roles. While she was shooting a TV pilot in 2017, one of the producers saw how much she made the crew laugh in their downtime and suggested she take her act to the stage.

“I said, ‘No way!’ she recalls. “Then a few weeks later, I was doing a stand-up comedy set at a first-timer’s night and it was a lot of fun.”

She caught the comedy bug and has spent the past six years creating the character Jo Ghastly. Inspired by her attempts to relate to her teenage kids, Charlotte, now 22, and Angus, 19, Joanna describes her alter-ego as a “more embarrassing” version of herself.

Luckily, Joanna’s kids, whom she shares with husband Marty, are so supportive of her new passion, they will be appearing in her upcoming show at the New Zealand Comedy Festival along with some of their friends.

As alter ego Jo Ghastly with her kids Angus and Charlotte.

She explains, “When I performed the show in Dunedin, Charlotte brought her whole flat to watch. My son used to bring groups of his high school friends, but I’ve noticed he hasn’t brought any of his uni friends. I suspect he thinks he’s a bit cooler than that now! I think they’re secretly quite proud of me and I’m probably a cooler mum than they give me credit for.”

While she’s just returned from a sold-out season at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. In 2021, Joanna was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. After being given the all-clear at her routine mammogram in November 2020, a few months later, she discovered a lump on her ribs and another one in each of her armpits.

“I have extremely dense breasts, so they’re kind of lumpy all the time and it’s really hard to accurately work out what’s a cancerous lump,” she tells. “It was good luck I came across the one on my ribs, otherwise I might have waited 18 months for my next scan and had stage 4 cancer.”

While some might crumble in the face of such distressing news, Joanna immediately began thinking of ways she could use the experience to help others.

“After crying, I thought, ‘I’ve got this. This is what I’ve been handed in life and I’m going to do something useful with it.'”

During her nine months of intensive treatment, which included chemotherapy and radiation, Joanna filmed the experience, hoping to turn it into a documentary.

Pooch Troy is the best medicine!

She also made daily vlogs, demystifying the process of chemo, and created the website hairtodayandtomorrow.co.nz, which she has filled with advice from her own experiences and her extensive research of how to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy.

“All of those things gave having cancer a purpose,” reflects Joanna.

“Even though it was a huge shock and my whole life was turned upside down, it was helpful turning that negative experience into something helpful for other people.”

Now that she’s cancer-free, but continuing to take hormone therapy drugs to keep it from returning, she’s on a mission to make sure everyone has the knowledge and access to treatment to thrive after cancer.

“Cancer isn’t just about surviving – it’s surviving well,” insists Joanna. “You can end up a real mess after treatment and living with disability, quite a lot of which is preventable. I’m keen to make some noise about improving people’s mental well-being after cancer.”

Joanna is performing The Cool Mum on May 12 and 13 at Te Auaha Tapere Nui in Wellington. Visit comedyfestival.co.nz for tickets.

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