Sickboy podcast tackles illness, disease with humour: ‘I’m not going to stop’

Jeremie Saunders doesn’t balk at what he describes as his “expiry date.”

The 29-year-old lives with cystic fibrosis, and has made a point of talking — and laughing — about his deadly illness.

Saunders and two friends, Taylor MacGillivary and Brian Stever, host a highly popular podcast, Sickboy, in which everyday people talk candidly about their illness or condition, and its impact on their lives.

The weekly podcast, and Saunders’s own story, are the subject of a new documentary “Sickboy,” set to air on CBC Docs POV Sunday.

“The thing about living with a terminal disease is that if you do choose to own it and you start to live your life ambitiously, it’s this sigh of relief. We can just be open and talk about all of the stuff that we jam down so deep,” Saunders says in the documentary.

“Until that expiry date comes, I’m not going to stop. Not until we make more people realize that laughing at a disease takes away its power.”

The podcast first aired in September 2015 and has since amassed more than a million downloads. The trio’s honest and comical conversations with guests — who are dealing with everything from leukemia to infertility and body dysmorphia — has drawn listeners from more than 130 countries.

Their aim is to remove the stigma attached to illness and disease, and laugh at the absurdity of it all.

“We weren’t doing this in the beginning because we wanted to create a community for people who are dealing with illness. We did this because we wanted it to be fun and be a representation of the conversations we have with one another,” said Stever, 28, his shoulder-length dirty blonde hair sticking out from under a hat.

In fact, the podcast started as a joke.

Already devoted podcast listeners, the group brainstormed the idea for the show and decided to rent a recording studio at the Halifax Central Library.

Their first guest: Saunders.

“When we listened back, the dynamic was so great. We just thought, why not invite somebody else who’s sick?” Stever, who works as a real estate agent, said during an interview at the library.

MacGillivary, who owns a yoga studio in downtown Halifax, said they hope to make conversations around illness more accessible and relatable by simply being themselves.

“To think that by being a silly jokester and having a conversation we’ve changed someone’s life — it’s mind-blowing,” said MacGillivary, 27.

“It becomes pretty mind-blowing when you have someone who’s been dealing with something that has affected every aspect of their lives say that you’ve helped them in some way.”

Saunders was not available for an interview with The Canadian Press due to complications with his health — but he’s expected to be OK.

He’s already lived longer than doctors said he would when he was a baby. Saunders, a yoga instructor, wasn’t even aware that his cystic fibrosis would shorten his life until he read a pamphlet about the genetic illness at age 10.

“We were never a family that talked,” Saunders says in the documentary during a conversation with his family. ”I think that experience played a major role in me being like, ‘Let’s start a community that we over-the-top talk about everything’.”

Because of his illness, he’s not able to have children. His friends say Sickboy has become Saunders’ legacy and “what he wants to leave behind.”

“We want to continue to be innovative and to branch out and reach new audiences,” said MacGillivary, adding there are plans to create a YouTube channel.

Despite the podcast’s humorous tone, the broad range of emotions that come with having an illness or being affected by illness are also put on display in the Sickboy documentary, directed by Halifax filmmaker Andrew MacCormack.

Saunders can be seen breaking into tears as he watches video clips from listeners who say the show has helped them. The death of a former Sickboy guest who had brain cancer — Layton Reid — also hits the group hard.

The film also features interviews with Saunders’ parents and wife, who open up about how his illness has affected their own lives.

MacCormack, who started filming the documentary just after the podcast got off the ground, said it’s all an example of how everyone “follows Jeremie’s lead.”

“Jeremie is so open about his illness and his expiry date, and I think everyone sees the effect that has. It can be so transformative to just talk openly,” he said.

The Sickboy documentary airs on CBC Docs POV at 8 p.m. ET Sunday. Saunders is also scheduled to speak at TEDxToronto on Oct. 27.

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