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Scott Thompson of Kids in the Hall talks to Maclean’s about having cancer

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“What? I won the lymphoma? I had no idea I was even nominated,” jokes Scott Thompson. “There are so many other people that are more deserving.” The ever-flamboyant member of cult sketch-comedy troupe the Kids in the Hall says this, as one might imagine, with tongue in cheek and dressed in drag. But though Thompson may be joking, he’s not kidding—this past spring, the Canadian alt-comedy icon was diagnosed with cancer. “I have . . . I had large B-cell non-Hodgkin’s gastric lymphoma.”

Thompson looks pretty fantastic, considering—credit his flashy red dress, blond wig, fake eyebrows and shockingly lifelike boobs—not to mention “modern medicine and medical marijuana.” On a warm September afternoon in North Bay, Ont., he’s seated in a wheelchair after tearing a calf muscle shooting the Kids’ comeback miniseries for the CBC. Middle age could be blamed, but more likely his injury is an indirect consequence of Thompson’s chemotherapy regime—the sixth excruciating round completed only two weeks before filming. “My body looks good,” he smiles, “but it’s fragile.”

The upcoming Kids reunion is an eight-episode murder mystery called Death Comes to Town. Yes, really. “This series has been bracketed by chemo and radiation—and in the middle is this wonderful phrase ‘Death Comes to Town,’ ” Thompson, 50, notes wryly. Making it even more surreal is that North Bay is where he lived until age eight. “In this funny way, I’ve come home to be reborn,” he says, eyes gleaming. “With what I’ve been through this year, to rise from the ashes here has been a really remarkable experience.”

Thompson joined the Kids in the Hall—alongside Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney—a quarter-century ago. Their sketch series, which aired on CBC, CBS and HBO between 1988 and 1995, made them cross-dressing cult sensations. But after his subsequent role on The Larry Sanders Show, Thompson’s career has largely involved one-man shows and occasional guest spots (including a coveted Simpsons cameo).

A well-received 2008 Kids in the Hall reunion tour, featuring all-new material, led to this TV foray. And then, shortly after the miniseries was green-lighted, Thompson’s cancer was discovered. It started with a flurry of gunshots outside his L.A. home one night last March. “I went into complete shock. I spent the night trying to find the thickest wall to hide against. The next morning when I woke up, I had pain in my stomach.”

For Thompson, the gunfire awoke the trauma of a 1975 school shooting he witnessed at Centennial Secondary in Brampton, Ont. “It was my class.” The shooter killed Thompson’s teacher, a student and then himself. “It was as if the bullets had been travelling for 30 years and they got me. His name was Michael. He sat behind me. I was transported back to that day in hiding—it’s as if the trigger for my cancer was an actual trigger. But in a strange way it saved my life. It made me go immediately to the doctor.”

That doctor diagnosed Thompson’s pain as cancer. Its location meant surgery wasn’t an option. “There was no way other than to poison the s–t out of me,” he says, and though catching it early, in stage one, would prove vital to Thompson’s recovery, it made the experience no less overwhelming. “There’s no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole—or a chemo ward. The first thing I did when I was told was pray.”

The next thing he did was cancel his gig hosting the Winnipeg Comedy Festival. He was initially worried about the work impact of his illness, but it may ultimately prove a boon. “My job is to bring light into the darkness—and gays are fine, they don’t need me anymore. I’m moving on to a new group, cancer people.”

One thing that helped Thompson power through was that the other Kids didn’t treat him any differently. “They teased me, even about having cancer—accusing me of doing it on purpose to grab the spotlight. But it’s important to have people not ask how you’re doing and look at you with big watery eyes.”

Once filming wrapped, Thompson returned to Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital for radiation therapy. His doctor now uses the word “cured,” but without his makeup and wig, or perhaps without the invigoration of filming, back home in Toronto in November, Thompson looks thinner and more tired than he did in North Bay. His leg is better but still swollen and he’s beset by back spasms from being bedridden for much of the past six weeks. “Radiation was worse than I expected,” he explains from the couch of his Toronto apartment. “That’s the problem with only talking to breast cancer survivors. You should talk to someone who gets it on their stomach—it gave me intense nausea and pain and exhaustion like I could not believe.”

Thompson is planning to turn his cancer experience into another one-man show—a format he used to great effect for 2001’s The Lowest Show on Earth and 2006’s Scott­astrophe! “I’ve never been this excited about performing live, or at least performing stand-up. I really feel like I have nothing to fear anymore. What’s going to happen to me? Someone’s going to not laugh?”

Thompson also hopes to be an inspiration to others. “Did you see my puzzle?” he asks, pointing to a completed jigsaw of hockey star Saku Koivu over on his dining room table. “I know it’s embarrassing, but I’m going to mount it. We had the exact same cancer. He came back and played great hockey. I find that incredibly inspiring.

“If Saku Koivu can come back and play hard, then I can joke hard.”