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Laughter a form of medicine in DJ Dylan Willows’ cancer fight

Victoria radio host Dylan Willows, who is facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, returned to work this week co-hosting the morning show at The Zone.
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Victoria radio DJ Dylan Willows, who is facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, returned to work this week co-hosting the morning show at The Zone. ROB PORTER

Victoria radio host Dylan Willows returned to the airwaves this week, following a personal leave from The Zone brought about by a shocking announcement.

Willows, 44, went public with his terminal cancer diagnosis on Dec. 1, during the last morning show before his five-week break. The after-effect was immediate. The rock station posted the news (and the emotional audio from the live broadcast) on its Facebook page, resulting in more than 2,300 likes and several hundred comments. Willows, a beloved media personality in Victoria, said everyone from close friends to complete strangers reached out, messages that fortified the Claremont Secondary graduate as he came to grips with his Stage 4 diagnosis.

“It helped me navigate the gravity of the situation,” Willows said, during an exclusive interview with the Times Colonist.

“After sharing with [listeners] what was going on, we knew there was going to be some feedback, but to see thousands and thousands of messages was overwhelming. It took me a long time to digest all of it. I’m pretty private for the most part — I’m not a social media guy — and I don’t really revel in that kind of attention. But it was very beautiful.”

Willows has been down this road before, which adds an extra layer of emotion. He was diagnosed at 25 with uveal melanoma, a rare form of ocular cancer that affects approximately five in every one million people annually, according to estimates. Though he eventually lost his left eye to the disease, Willows was deemed cancer-free after five years. He turned to advocacy as a form of therapy, talking openly on air about his previous battle with cancer. He joined the Cops for Cancer Tour de Rock team in 2008, and many of his fundraising efforts for The Zone have involved like-minded charities.

“I’ve been very open and honest about having cancer in the past, and losing my eye, to the extent where having one eye is a punchline,” Willows said of the morning show he co-hosts with Jason Lamb. “That’s who we are. We have a dark side to our humour, but it adds a lot of levity in situations where things are really shitty. That’s something I really tried to articulate when we announced what was going on. We can laugh and joke, no matter how bad things are or dark things have gotten.”

Willows and Lamb, who came to The Zone at different points, have co-hosted the morning show for 16 years (prior to working at The Zone, Willows worked at an urban radio station, The Beat, in Vancouver). They fight, often “like an old married couple,” Willows said. But he considers Lamb the closest thing to his own brother, who died tragically in 2003, at the age of 19 — about six months before Willows received his first cancer diagnosis.

Which is why he returned this week to work with Lamb, who moonlights as a stand-up comedian. Despite feeling battered by the experimental treatment he is receiving, Willows needs what modern science cannot deliver — laughter as a form of medicine. “Joking about being sick and having cancer isn’t off the table,” he said. “It’s fully on the table. That’s the frame of mind I’m in. I would rather laugh about it than be bummed out. I’ve got enough to be bummed out about.”

He knew something was amiss in the months leading up to his diagnosis, having taken only a handful of sick days in 20 years of service at the station. He went to the doctor for a check-up, and as bad luck would have it, learned that the cancer he presumed to have beaten had never left his body, waiting two decades before metastasizing in his abdomen. He’s currently receiving immunotherapy treatment, “but the best it is going to do is buy me some precious time,” he said.

He's geared up to make good use of that time.

Willows, whose family moved here from Yellowknife, N.W.T., during elementary school, raves about Victoria on and off the airwaves, and has been a big part of the arts and culture fabric for two decades. He co-founded V.I.C. Fest in 2011, and ran the popular cultural festival — featuring only local musicians and food and beverage providers — at St. Ann’s Academy until 2014. He also managed local rapper Langdon Auger, and was among a local ownership group that ran Sugar nightclub, now the Capital Ballroom, until 2017.

Returning to The Zone this week helped in that regard. Not only is the routine good for his mental health, both the city and station need him. His plan is to be on air each week, taking only Fridays off to recover from his treatment. “I should be able to get to a point over time where my body is acclimated to treatment and I could work five days a week,” he said.

The key will be finding a suitable balance between home and work life. Despite what he’s facing, Willows remained rock solid emotionally during our hour-long interview, until the discussion turned to his relationship with his family, and his wife, Sam. He described the impact of cancer on his family as an “eviscerating tidal wave” engulfing his loved ones. If he begins to retreat from the public eye, he made it clear it will be out of respect for his nearest and dearest.

It is easy to avoid the elephant in the room when talking about things like work, and what one loves about their hometown. Funny went out the door when his mother, who has already lost a son, and wife, whom he married less than one year ago, entered the conversation.

“I wanted to get back to work. It was a benchmark for me,” he said. “But how long I am going to last at work, I don’t know. My diagnosis is grim. I’ll find out [in a few weeks] what the future really looks like for me. If the treatment is working, then I’ll stay at work for as long as I can, as long as it is not affecting my quality of life. If the treatment isn’t going as planned, my wife and I have to sit down and really decide what the remaining time we have together looks like. And I’m not sure that is going to work every day.”

Willows is at an uncertain point in life, only a percentage of which is under his control. His fortitude is being tested, to be sure. But few who have met Willows — known as Big D to some, on account of his barrel chest and booming voice — would ever question his mental or physical strength.

“Obviously, there’s good days and bad days. But I have incredible moments within those bad days, and I have bad moments within those good days. I just try and ground myself, and be as present as possible.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com