Body & Fitness

Surviving cancer made our marriage stronger: a Kiwi comedian and his wife share their incredible story

Comedian and cancer survivor David Downs and his wife Katherine share their moving story of heartache, despair and ultimate triumph.
David and Katherine Downs: surviving cancer made our marriage stronger

David Downs is a lucky man. After being told two years ago to get his affairs in order because he only had weeks to live he is still here today – and very much alive and kicking.

The businessman, comedian and father-of-three from Auckland was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma in February 2017 and underwent a year of gruelling chemotherapy treatment to rid him of the cancer. But the chemo didn’t work and things were looking grim.

“We were told ‘maybe you should consider going to hospice because throwing more chemo at you is only going to make you feel sicker and the chemo won’t work’, David recalls.

But just as he and wife Katherine went about gathering the family to tell them the bad news, David received a message from a stranger that literally gave him back his life.

David had been blogging about his cancer journey and one of his followers had messaged him to say ‘I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but as a medical person I love reading your story and if there’s anything I can ever do, just let me know.’

Katherine and David with their sons (l-r) Toby, Joshua and Jack. David dyed his hair pink then had it shaved off (just as started falling out from his first round of chemo) to raise funds for the Shave For A Cure campaign.

“He turned out to be the head of immunology at Pfizer Inc., which is huge drug company in New York,” David explains.

“I emailed him back and said ‘I need help now’. Within a few hours he’d connected us with a researcher at Harvard University medical school who was doing a clinical trial. We were literally on the phone with him in our bedroom while everyone was waiting in the lounge at our house for us to tell them I was terminal. It was a Saturday in New York and he was on the sideline at his son’s football game, we could hear that going on in the background. He said, ‘I think I can get you on this clinical trial if you can get to Boston.'”

The couple’s elation quickly turned to despair when they found out the treatment could cost US$1 million, but while David resigned himself to letting go of their last hope, Katherine had other ideas. She told her husband she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if the treatment might have worked and they hadn’t tried; it didn’t matter how much it cost. So they put their house on the market – and were once again overwhelmed by the kindness of others.

David in the midst of gruelling chemotherapy treatment in May 2017.

Friends and family formed a Givealittle page and David’s friends from the TV comedy show Seven DaysJeremy Corbett, Dai Henwood, Josh Thomson, Michele A’Court, Jeremy Elwood, Paul Ego, Justine Smith and Jon Bridges – put on a fundraiser variety show, 7 Daves.

Enough was raised for the couple to be able to keep their house and the very next week David was on a plane to Boston, where the one-off treatment, CAR T-cell treatment, was administered.

CAR T-cell stands for Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell. The therapy works by redirecting a patient’s immune cells (T-cells) in the laboratory, to directly identify and attack cancer cells. These modified T-cells are then returned to the patient(via an injection) where they can attack and destroy cancer cells. The T-cells can act as ‘living drugs’, providing long-term protection against relapse, similar to a vaccine.

After the treatment David experienced flu-like symptoms for about a week, then three weeks later was told the cancer was gone.

Just. Like. That.

The 7 Daves event that helped raise the money David needed for his CAR T-cell treatment.

This treatment is coming to New Zealand. The Malaghan Institute of Medical Research will begin its first clinical trial in the coming months and David has reduced his hours at work so that he can dedicate his time to spreading awareness about his treatment and other cancer research in New Zealand.

“You don’t go through something like this and not come out a different person,” he says.

“More than a thousand people contributed to my getting better and I can never pay them back, so I’m paying it forward.”

David has become a marriage celebrant so that he can be part of the “good things in life”.

And he has written a book, A Mild Touch of the Cancer, which chronicles his journey from his diagnosis through to his recovery. All proceeds from the book are going towards cancer research in New Zealand.

David high-fives Dr Jeff Barnes at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “He’d just told me that my cancer is gone, just 28 days earlier it was terminal,” says David.

David is not out of the woods yet. You need to be in remission for five years before you’re considered cancer-free. As part of the trial he is required to regularly return to Boston for check-ups and data collection.

But he and Katherine are celebrating every day. They’ve already thrown a big party to thank the people who’ve supported them and in July they renewed their wedding vows in a mass vow renewal ceremony with friends, despite their 25th wedding anniversary being just a year away.

“We’ll just have another celebration for that,” they laugh. They plan to do something special with their sons, Jack (20), Joshua (17) and Toby (13).

There are certain triggers in everyday life that take them back to their darkest days. Katherine can no longer eat muffins because they remind her of the muffin and coffee she bought every day from the hospital café when David was having chemo. The couple can no longer stand the sight of beanie hats, which David wore when his hair fell out from the chemo.

They get upset when they hear of others who are on the same journey as they once were.

“The reminders make me realise and remember how lucky we are, in lots of ways, and I’m scared to forget,” Katherine says quietly.

David and Katherine renewed their wedding vows in a mass vow renewal ceremony with their friends in July. David was the celebrant so naturally he dressed as Elvis. Katherine wore her original wedding dress and dyed her hair pink because pink “went better with the dress than grey hair!”

Looking back, how did they get through? One day at a time and “in the company of family and friends”.

David’s sister and Katherine’s mother, in particular, were there every day to cook meals and help with the couple’s sons and the practical aspects of running a household.

Katherine fell back on particular sayings to help her remain stoic.

“God helps those who help themselves,” she reveals. “Even though I’m an atheist, it reminded me that we had to keep pushing forward.

“And ‘cross bridges as you come to them’, which is what my mother always said. It became really important not to project what might happen in the future, because, to use the classic term, it’s a roller coaster. You go through so many ups and downs… and anything could happen. So if I found myself lying in bed at night planning David’s funeral, which happened often, I stopped myself.”

Katherine and David on their wedding day 24 years ago.

The couple say they were one another’s “seesaw” – each pulling the other up at different times.

“When one’s down, the other must be up. That’s what saves you,” Katherine says.

“One more day, one step closer,” Katherine would often say to David.

“We didn’t know ‘what to’ some days, but it helped,” David says.

When the couple renewed their wedding vows last year they wrote a list of 14 tips for being married.

Their advice, below, is beautifully poignant in light of what this journey has taught them about life, love and marriage.

Katherine & David’s tips for being married

  1. Marry the right person.

  2. Friends and family are the oxygen your marriage needs to breathe. May you grow old in the company of friends and family.

  3. Make time to do special things for one another. Surprise each other once in a while.

  4. Don’t just say ‘I love you’, say what you love about each other.

  5. Be honest, not angry. Anger is a weapon. Honesty is a gift.

  6. Treat each other with the same respect you would a guest or a stranger.

  7. Marriage is not a competition, it’s a partnership.

  8. Part of your role is to help the other person be the best person they can be.

  9. Dishwashers save marriages.

  10. Surprise her with flowers every now and then.

  11. Cook together.

  12. Don’t tell him anything important until he has had his dinner.

  13. Never stop holding hands and pashing.

  14. Don’t argue in the bedroom. Bedrooms are for making up.

They’ve been given a rare second chance and they know it.

“We’ve always had a strong, close, loving relationship ,” David says. “But this has brought us closer.”

Interestingly, the fact that David is married to Katherine meant he had a 23 per cent higher chance of surviving cancer than if he was not.

This fact made such an impression on David he included it in his book: “There was a Harvard University study of over 750,000 people with cancer, and they looked at all the factors adding up to survivability and discovered that the benefit of being married has a bigger impact than many treatments… They attributed this to the love, affection and care that married couples give each other… they also suggested there was a real impact of (their words, not mine) the ‘nag factor’, where wives will hassle their husbands to go to the doctor, take the pills, get the stem cell transplant…”

“I wouldn’t wish this [experience] on anyone and I’d certainly not want to do it again,” he continues. “But in a strange way it was a really amazing thing that happened for us.

“It’s really made us appreciate time and each other. And, for me, it’s created a feeling that I’m lucky and I’ve got to do something with that. I’ve got to use this time well.”

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