Story published 2 February 2024
When 19-year-old Jay Swinnerton was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma in 2017, they found a new lease of life through the art of drag. Now aged 26, Jay talks about their treatment at The Christie and their experience of finding joy and creativity in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis.
On 26 August 2023, I stepped out onto the stage at Manchester Pride as Shanika Sunrise, officially cementing my drag comeback after 6 years of healing. The last time I’d performed in the Manchester’s Gay Village, Shanika had been a patient, and I’d rapped my song Sued in defiance of my relapse diagnosis.
6 years later, with 3 worldwide singles, 2 experiences with cancer under my belt and 1 exhilarating story to tell, she was back. As the opening synths from my brand-new single Directions started to pulse out of the speakers, I knew that this time nothing would stop me from shining. Shanika Sunrise was a survivor.
The moment everything changed
When the doctor called me on the afternoon of 30 March 2017 to diagnose me with stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma, I was a 19-year-old History student shopping for hoop earrings in Afflecks with my best friend Vic.
I’d spent the past year teaching dance classes, learning Italian, and serving dim sum in between my lectures at the business school canteen. I’d spread myself so thin that when the fatigue started, I remember thinking “duh!” because sleep was nowhere to be seen on my second-year agenda. Yet, 6 months, several night sweats, lumps, bumps, and 3 biopsies later, I finally had the news I’d feared the most. No one can prepare you for the feeling of receiving a cancer diagnosis as a teenager.
You spend your adolescence going through the motions, convinced of karma and the hazy and idealistic plans of your future, only to find yourself completely derailed, cynical and suspended in time. Uni exams are replaced by routine bloods, seminars are swapped for scans, and vodka for vinblastine, a type of chemo. I never did buy those hoops.
Cancer and Shanika Sunrise
One of the metaphors I’ve grown to live by in recent years is that the sun always rises, no matter how long or dark the night may seem. Truthfully, if it wasn’t for cancer, I would never have found Shanika Sunrise. My friends, knowing I was going to lose my hair, had bought me a long purple wig to remedy my inevitable gag-worthy glow-down. When I’d first tried it on, the fringe had reached my nose, and so I’d taken it upon myself to snip away at the wig until you could practically scan my bespoke bangs as a barcode. It was hideous, which meant that it was perfect. Shanika Sunrise was born.
Shanika first took to the stage with chemo brain in the aftermath of my ABVD (the type of chemo I was on) era. I clearly didn’t know what I was doing because I’d lip-synced to a homemade remix of Jai Ho and accidentally ripped my top clean in 2 in a botched attempt at a reveal, but I’d never felt so free. A year later, Shanika returned. This time my cancer had grown, but so had my confidence, and I performed a stand-up routine incorporating my unhinged anecdotes as a drag queen in pursuit of a bone marrow match. I’d finally found the vocabulary to make sense of a life that made no sense: comedy was my catharsis.
Treatment after my relapse was comparatively more brutal than the first time. I was now trialling 4 different drugs and juggling sepsis and lymphoma before I finally reached remission thanks to a new immunotherapy drug. As a patient with refractory disease – my cancer hadn’t fully responded to treatment – I learned that my last hope of narrowing my chances of relapse was a stem cell transplant, which essentially involved a complete factory reset of my immune system and was absolutely as attention-seeking as it sounds. Miraculously, my superstar brother was a bone marrow match, and in February 2019, he saved my life.
The Christie was my cocoon
Ever since that day in March 2017, the incredible team at The Christie – the specialist cancer centre where I was treated – nursed my body and nurtured my spirit. Hellbent on expressing myself in rebellion of adversity, I began to wear make-up and falsies to my appointments, and The Christie became a cocoon for a young, queer, Jay. At a time when my physical body was betraying me, it was liberating to be able to be myself. Cancer pushes you beyond unimaginable limits, but the care and encouragement of my team was integral to my perseverance. Even when I wanted to hide away from it all, I never had to hide who I was.
My nurse Hanna was particularly wonderful. She always made time for me when I felt like my world was ending and kept it spinning by helping me bring Shanika to life. When I needed to get a grip, Hanna pulled me together, and when things felt rubbish, we would sit and plan Shanika’s next publicity stunt.
Looking to the future
Recovery feels like it’s going to last forever, and it probably will. Only now, years later, do I feel like I am finally getting my spark back. During those dark days after my transplant, I was convinced that I would never perform as Shanika Sunrise again; she was a discontinued character fashioned from the trauma of an era that I was desperate to run from. Last year, however, Shanika finally rose again, and I even attended my graduation ceremony in a 40-inch wig and lashes, buoyed by the thrill of finally finishing my studies with a first-class degree. Since cancer, I have done countless gigs as Shanika, toured internationally with RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni and I am now being booked as a solo artist for my own shows.
It's true that my creativity and career are now forever bound with my cancer, and I think about this every single day. But that’s completely fine with me, because whilst cancer derailed my life, it put me on a beautiful path.