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HARD-WON LAUGHS JULIA SWEENEY THANKS CANCER FOR HER NEW OUTLOOK

By MARK EGAN

Reuters

LOS ANGELES -- With curlers in her hair, a smile on her face and a lilt in her voice, Julia Sweeney is getting ready for another audition, going about her daily routine, seemingly without a care in the world.

But behind the cheerful exterior are memories of a tragic year. In her book, "God said, 'Ha!' " -- published in June by Bantam -- she relives a time when cancer claimed her brother and she also battled the disease. Sweeney can see the bright side even of this most somber topic.

"This sounds like such a screwed-up piece of advice, but everything's a gift," the 37-year-old comedian said in an interview at her home in Los Angeles. "Your cancer also is a gift. It's an opportunity."

Back in 1994, Sweeney's life was the stuff of dreams. She had enjoyed four years as a cast member of the popular television show "Saturday Night Live" and her androgynous character, Pat, was made into a movie.

Then it all went horribly wrong. In the space of a year she divorced, her movie "It's Pat" was an embarrassing flop, her brother died of cancer in his early 30s, and she was diagnosed as having cervical cancer.

"There is good in everything, even when most of it is bad," Sweeney said. "You will grow. Even if you are going to die, you are going to grow."

In "God said, 'Ha!' " Sweeney tells how her life was turned on its head when her sick brother, Mike, moved in with her. She tells her story with as much wit as the best situation comedy, poking fun at her parents' idiosyncrasies and her own insecurities, while also affording her brother's death the gravity it deserved.

The book expands on the one-woman show of the same name that Sweeney used to rebuild her career. The show played in San Francisco and Los Angeles before ending with a six-week run on Broadway. A recording of the show has recently been released by Warner Bros. as a double CD.

For Sweeney, the gift from cancer was that it brought her closer to her brother and helped her reevaluate her own life.

"I would trade everything to have him alive again. On the other hand, if he was killed in a car accident I would never have had the nine months to actually get to know him as well as I did. I may never have gotten to know Mike as well had he lived until he was 90," she said.

Even when both siblings were suffering from cancer, they could see the humor in their plight, answering the phone with the greeting "International House of Cancer."

Nothing is too personal for Sweeney to talk about. Her cervical cancer led to a hysterectomy but her ovaries were left intact to avoid the early onset of menopause. Her doctor told her that if she wanted a child she might want to use her remaining eggs immediately in case of future complications.

"I had these eggs, and the only way I would have a child would be with (my boyfriend)," she said of the incident. "I had just met my boyfriend and I was really in love, but it was like a wartime romance. One month into the relationship and if I ever have a biological child, it's with him! To me that was like taking an anvil and holding it over the relationship."

Not only would Sweeney have needed her boyfriend's sperm in a hurry, but she would also have needed a surrogate mother to carry the child to term.

"I have moral objections with going to too much length to have kids. . . . It seems immoral to pursue biological procreation under such extreme measures," she said, adding that she hoped to adopt someday.

Sweeney said she used to be very ambitious. She spent years working for movie studios as an accountant before getting her big break on "Saturday Night Live."

"I felt like a 23-year-old until this happened. . . . Life is endless, people live forever, nothing you do will affect you physically," she said. Now, with her troubles behind her and her own cancer apparently cured, she finds her perspective on life has changed.

"I used to have such big ambitions, dreams of big successes, and now I just think about how much money I can get so I don't have to work anymore and I can just do some gardening," she said.

As for the future, Sweeney has just finished editing a film version of "God Said, 'Ha!' " financed by her close friend Quentin Tarantino. She hopes to direct and star in a movie she plans to write, an office romance loosely based on her days as an accountant. She also auditions for small roles in other films and is finding work doing script rewrites.

But above all else, Sweeney, who has the rare gift of seeing the positive in every situation, plans to enjoy living.

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