David Downs and Willy De Wit have an unlikely friendship. Meeting decades ago through comedy they became well known in the New Zealand comedy scene through their extensive stand-up shows together. But as many friendships do in life, theirs drifted apart; until, that is, they were reunited through tough times.
And what those tough times produced has been an inspiration, culminating in a comedy show that puts a lighter touch on their experiences.
In 2016, Willy had a stroke, leaving the left side of his body paralysed. A year later, David was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
Both have fought their own battles but now find comfort in supporting one another.
“For me and Willy” explains David, “it’s a really even deeper friendship because we’re mutually going through some really, really tough times.”
“I’m a father, a husband, a writer, an actor at times and someone who’s beaten cancer.”
The Downs’ connected with a US cancer researcher who linked them up to Harvard University researchers. David went on a clinical trial the next week in Boston, Massachusetts to try Car T-cell therapy, essentially using the body’s own system to kill the cancer.
Three months later David was declared cured, with a renewed sense of what was important in life; “relationships with people.”
Willy proudly says he is a stroke survivor, “since my stroke three years ago I’ve been doing a lot of rehabilitation and coming through with a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.”
Although life has not been a walk in the park, “I’ve been battling depression off and on for years and when the stroke hit then the depression got really bad. I was stuck in a wheelchair and people thought I’m a freak.”
But helping Willy through the tough times has been rehab in itself for David, “I often think about relationships as a see-saw,” he says, “if one persons’ down on one end you kind of hope the other person is up and they can help you up.”
This is where the unique relationship between David and Willy comes in. They planned their comedy show ‘For a Limited Time’; which allowed the cathartic process of laughing at their own, and each other’s misfortune.
“We hadn’t seen each other in 10 years,” explains David, and I heard he was going through some stuff with his stroke and depression. At the same time I was going through my cancer treatment, it took months for him to pick up the phone and get back to me.”
Once they were close they agreed; “If we survive this we are going to do a show.”
Amongst their planning they rib each other, “I think you blame a lot on the stroke whereas it’s just old age” cracks David.
For Willy, his depression hit after wrapping-up 20 years with a successful comedy show, “I shut myself off from everybody calling, calling and then they stopped calling because I wasn’t picking up. Depression took control.”
“It’s such a hard battle, the demons are there that you possess. Inevitably I sought help about how to counter it, be better than it and overcome it. After 5 years having put myself right came the stroke out of nowhere.”
Then began his slow road to recovery; “I was a very lucky man, I was very close to death. Then I learnt about my disabilities and how affected I was by the stroke, which had taken out my left side, I spoke fluent garble and lost 30 kilograms.”
Throughout his physical journey back to health, he was also battling mentally; “the most poignant thing for me was in this hospital with twelve people who were stroke-based and would come into the same room to eat and there was no communication. I kind of gave up at that stage thinking, is this it?”
Willy spent a year and a half in a wheelchair, “accepting my fate as disabled” and then he found strength in people like David and found hope.
“A year and a half ago wheelchair, a year ago out of wheelchair, eight months ago quad stick walking.”
The live comedy show about their dance with death pokes fun at the close-call they both had; “there’s five of us in the show me and Willy and our friend Emma, Emma’s got brain cancer and then two of our children. It kind of creates this feeling of community but we are certainly not resting on our laurels. It’s quite hard to pull off a show about death in a comedic way.”
"It’s quite hard to pull off a show about death in a comedic way.”
This experience gets Willy back into the comedy scene with people he knows, doing what he loves despite the fear.
His experience of live comedy again is positive; “to do it now with my limitations as they are and my disabilities is even more edifying and rewarding because it’s a challenge that I’ve overcome.”
For David, the journey and their friendship is a pure example of the importance of relationships; “your ability to go through something is in large part related to how many friends and family and how much support you get. Always make sure you are cultivating friendships because those are the things that will actually get you through the tough times.”
David Downs has released a book about his journey to getting CAR-T cell therapy with all proceeds going to further CAR-T cell research.
“I was laughing to the point of tears at his antics.” — Phil Keoghan, The Amazing Race
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