Interview with Craig Coombes of Naked Tuesday dot me
This is an interview I did with Craig Coombes in 2013 at his home in Melbourne for a book I’ve been very slowly putting together on grief.
I’ll include the background of the interview and the book at the end, but since that conclusion will no doubt waffle on for quite a bit (much like the author), let’s dispense with that for now and first get to the subject matter and the man himself.
Craig Coombes received a terminal diagnosis of throat cancer in 2012. Instead of feeling sorry for himself and hiding away from the world, Craig chose a fairly unconventional way of expressing himself and what he was going through.
It’s an approach that’s resonated with thousands of others around the world via social media, and literally millions through his television appearances.
And happily, Craig is witnessing this as he continues to defy the medicos, batting on way past the initial prognosis of his existence.
I started by asking Craig where he was up to at that point, in August 2013.
It started with a diagnosis of laryngitis (as you can tell with this wonderful voice of mine!) Through not improving, and tests, tests, tests, it became, “Sorry, cancer”.
You hear that word, it does change your life completely.
The old thing is that ‘Cancer is a word, not a sentence’. Did they give you hope?
That day they pretty much said it’s a tumour on my vocal chord. And thyroid cancer.
So we’ll do the operation, you’ll have some treatment, and everything will be fine.
It didn’t get fine, did it?
No, it didn’t get fine.
After the treatment, it was radioactive iodine therapy in the Alfred Hospital – isolation, which was tough. And then home, in this very room, for seven days in isolation.
Prior to that, they’d done a body scan and said we’re sorry but it’s spread to lymph nodes. Two more tumours grew in that three month period in between surgery and treatment that they weren’t expecting.
That’s a thing I’ve noticed as a total lay-person is that once it starts escaping, the long-term view is not so good.
That’s exactly what they told me. As soon as it moves from the primary site, that’s when you’re in strife.
It’s moved to plenty of spots now.
We talk about the five stages of grieving and all that. Did you feel yourself going through those at all?
Oh! Tell me about that!
No, I’ve had a mother who was a quadriplegic for 25 years, and spent the last 25 years of her life in hospital.
I was fully aware of how to deal with illness, and I made it an absolute pact in my own mind when they told me that I’m not going to be stereotyped into what they tell me is going to happen.
So I made that an absolute that… nuh!
I’ll do this my way.
For me personally, I don’t touch sympathy. I’ll take all the empathy in the world. Is that a thing for you where you don’t want people to go, “Oh, poor Craig!”?
I have made that so clear: please do not feel sorry for me.
Don’t ‘Poor Craig’ me. It’s empathy yeah, sympathy no.
So what you’ve done then is take a rather novel approach to your mortality. Rather than planting rose gardens or writing long treatises. Tell us about Naked Tuesday.
OK, it became something out of nothing, really.
It was first of all a way of coping, for me, to do a photo with the important bits covered!
It started through some friends of my son, and they did a couple. Just young blokes being stupid.
And I thought, well, I’m stupid but I’m an older bloke.
So I submitted a photo to him and he didn’t publish it on their page. I said, “Is that because I’m old and fat?” He said, “Nah, but it was stupid, we’re not doing it, mate”.
So then I thought I’ll chuck it on my Facebook page. The reaction was different to what I expected. I expected my friends to go, “Mate. Don’t!”
It was quite the opposite. And then people saying I’m sure you’re going to do one next week, which wasn’t in my mindset.
Then all of a sudden it dawned on me: I was laughing at myself.
People were laughing at me, people were laughing with me.
Then I decided, OK, I’m going to use this in a positive way. And it gave me something to look forward to and me a way of coping with the illness.
And my family.
And it showed everyone else that while things could be a bit dull and boring, you can still have a laugh.
And whether it’s with me or at me, I don’t care!
I was going to say people are grabbing it with both hands, though we shouldn’t really say that when we’re talking about naked bits!
But it has struck a lot of chords, a lot of resonances with people.
Crazy. Ridiculously crazy.
I just used to do it every week, from late October .
Then this year, I just wanted to go to Adam Hills’s TV Show [In Gordon Street Tonight], just to sit in the audience to watch because I like him. A mate and I got to meet him in October.
We just got tickets to go to the show but my mate did me in! He told them about Naked Tuesday, and they [ABC] thought it was a great idea.
And then bang! That’s when it went crazy.
Just crazy, way beyond belief.
When they called me, they said, “Can we use your photos?” I said yep, and I’d almost hung up, and they said, “No, Adam wants to do some with you”, and create these iconic ones.
And I said, “Oh yeah, OK…”
So we went to the studio to do the photos and [the ABC producers] said, “Do you have a website?” No.
“Do you have a Facebook page?” Only my own one. “For Naked Tuesday?” No.
“Why? Because this will resonate with people.”
My mate Pete [Buchstaller], who’s the driving force of this said, “I’ll set something up”.
And they knew what they were talking about.
[As of October 2015, the Naked Tuesday Facebook page has over 6200 followers, including hundreds of photos sent in on theme. The interviewer may or may not appear in two of those.]
When you think about Australians, we’ve got a rich tradition of getting our gear off!
It’s an Aussie thing, isn’t it?!
So after Adam Hills, the Footy Show got involved as well?
Yeah, which again I knew nothing of. Pretty much Peter my mate, who when I got the diagnosis in September 2012 said: Bucket List.
I didn’t have one, so he said, create it.
So I did, and [former rugby league player and commentator] Andrew Johns was on my bucket list.
So behind my back, they did all the conspiring and put it together. Which pretty much happens with everything. Noone tells me anything; they just grab me and say, “We’re going here!” And the Footy Show were just brilliant.
I’d like to add to your list if I can. What sort of music do you like?
I just love music, the whole gamut.
A lot of a cappella. And people say, “You’ve got Nickelback followed by The Nylons!” Yes, that’s right!
See that picture on the shelf over there? That’s my daughter and me and Chad of Nickelback. I got to meet him.
When was that?
That was November 20…. Hang on, I can tell you the exact date…
Look out, he’s reaching into his pants!
I have my backstage pass still in my wallet. It was the 28th of the eleventh, 2012. Nickelback: Here And Now Tour.
Sometimes you have themes for a Naked Tuesday. What’s today’s?
It’s open today. What we’re trying to do is get little speciality bits for a calendar we’re creating. So on public holidays on the calendar, we’ll have a little picture of someone. So we put out the call, if you want to do a Melbourne Cup one, or Halloween, Easter pictures.
So it was open slather for the next couple of weeks. And the best ones will end up in the calendar on the little squares.
Which is gold, because it means we can have other people apart from the 12 monthly big shots, to get more people involved.
I was pretty happy about this calendar!
And there’s a charity, a main charity that this is benefitting.
Yep, it’s called The Orange Pigeon. They’re the only organisation in Australia that does ‘Make A Wish’ for adults.
Once all this Naked Tuesday madness started, and people started contacting us asking for merchandise, which we didn’t have, because this isn’t a commercial entity, Pete decided we’ve got to do this.
And I said, “Yeah, OK, but I don’t want any money out of this”. I want to help other people who are going through this.
Pete found The Orange Pigeon.
He said, I can’t believe there’s a proper organisation doing what I’m doing for you.
He got in touch with them and said, we’d like to partner up with you and every cent we raise from anything we sell goes to you.
They were pretty overwhelmed by that because it’s a very small group of volunteers.
So now we are aligned with them. We met Jenny and we get on famously, and we’re so very, very happy that every single cent is going to them.
The end result for someone who’s wanting a wish or a comfort… I keep saying to people, don’t think that anything small’s not worthwhile because it is.
And I full well know, I only spent three months recovering from the operation, but the first chance I got to go out for dinner was a wonderful feeling.
So for people who’ve not been able to experience that, and money becomes an issue because you can’t work so you’ve got to be very careful. So for someone to be able to say, you and your wife or husband and the whole family, go out to dinner on us and enjoy yourself, fair dinkum, it’s a wonderful feeling.
It’s a really good point that there is no donation or thing that you can do that is too small. As you say, the smallest consideration by one person could be the biggest thing in someone else’s life.
A small thing like dinner, which we all take for granted, like if it’s just going out to La Porchetta. People do that without thinking, $20 for a pizza and a drink. But the opportunity to get out of your house when you’ve been stuck there for so long. And get out in public if you’ve got a scar. Mine’s barely visible, but at the time it was fairly visible. I didn’t give a rat’s, but it was so nice to get out, get a bit of fresh air, get amongst people again.
And have a feed!
I’ve been the recipient of so many wonderful things.
As I say to people who donate, you’re probably never going to hear the thank you from that person. It doesn’t matter. Be comfortable knowing that you’ve contributed.
Craig, the future from now. You’ve got some treatment coming up.
Yeah, daunting, to be honest. Scary, petrified, all that.
Even though I’ve gone through it before, ‘cause you now know what’s coming, I think.
So September the ninth , I come off all my medication, and they warn me it’ll be the worst three weeks of my life.
Because the medication controls your metabolism, your body temperature.
So the biggest fear is that if I actually overheat, I can go into a coma. So I want to be careful because I don’t want that to happen!
So that three weeks, I’ll have a bit of trouble apparently after the first few days actually walking, so I’ve got to be careful.
And then they scan me, they readjust the dosages of everything, and then I’ll be going in for more radioactive iodine to kill the thyroid cancer again, because it’s back, which they always said is probably going to happen.
So hopefully they’ll get all of it.
Unfortunately they won’t do anything to anything else. Although on October the eighth , I’m meeting with the endocrinologist, and based off the September 30 scan, there will be a final decision if it’s seen to be too taxing on my body and not worth it, then I’ve got a decision to make.
I’ll put my trust in myself and see how we go.
Craig, the inference that I take is that you, as you present at the moment, you’re pretty together, you’ve sort of got your own mortality under control. With all the things that you’re going through, with the people that are around you, how is it… do you… Do you find you end up being a carer for how they’re getting on with it all?
Mate, that is probably the smartest thing anyone has said to me in 12 months.
Because the other day my wife looked at me and said, “You hide things from us. Because you’re trying to care for us, when you should be caring for yourself.”
But I took it upon myself as the father figure. I’ve got a 25 year old son and a 21 year old daughter. I still need to care for them.
So yes, I do shield them sometimes when I’m feeling sick.
It tends to get neglected a bit. They tend to forget the people around you. People say, “Can I take you out, mate? I’ll do this for you.” A few people have done things for the whole family, which I appreciate, because it’s hard on them.
I caught my son crying once and I said, “What’s wrong?”
He said, “You’ll never see me get married. You’ll never see me have kids”.
“No, I won’t. But it doesn’t mean you’re not going to be a good father. Doesn’t mean you’re not going to be a good husband. I see those characteristics in you.”
My daughter’s changed her lifestyle completely, Six months ago, she went on a diet, she’s lost 30 kilos. And ridiculously working hard. Five nights at the gym. I’m large and unfortunately she’s inherited some of my genes which she didn’t like. But she thought, I’ve got to get healthier here.
And we are so proud that she’s done that without us saying, you need to look after yourself at such a young age. And she looks absolutely magnificent.
I’m really proud of my kids.
Just on body size, I’m empathising with the way I’m presenting myself!
Mate, you look a lot better than I do, and I can say that because I’ve seen you with nothing on!
Am I allowed to say that? Because I’ve got the picture on the website!
Moving on and keeping a modicum of decorum! I love your tagline, ‘Make the rest of your life the best of your life’. Where did that come from?
I just read things and somebody might have said something not quite like that, and there were two or three things like that, and I thought, well, that’s what I’m doing.
And whether the rest of my life is two months or six months, I’m going to make it the best.
I’ve got a few things to give you, but I’ve got a CD back in Sydney I have to send you by Amber Lawrence and one song on it is, ‘(Maybe The Rest Of Your Life Is) The Best Of Your Life’, so I’ll send that to you.
Craig, it’s been absolutely a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for your time, and considering it’s about six degrees outside, we might leave it at that for ‘Naked Tuesday’. No nudity!
It’s been my pleasure and thank you for your time. I appreciate it.
Never mind two or six months, that interview was now 26 months ago, and Craig and his family have celebrated many milestones of Craig being ‘past his use-by date’ since then.
To even try to summarise the adventures Craig has had since then would be to double the size of this article.
Just by way of background, this interview was recorded on a little Zoom recorder that I only last week dug out of a storage shed in Sydney where it had been gathering dust for many months while I’d been on the road.
When Craig and Peter appeared on the Adam Hills show back in 2013, I had literally sat up bolt upright during the segment and was a mess of emotions by the end of it. (I’ve even had a little weepie moment or three just assembling the material and clips for this article.)
I followed Naked Tuesday on Twitter on Facebook that night, and sent messages to both, and shared the stuffing out of the links to my own circles.
It would have rested there except that a short time later, I lost my rather well-paying and thoroughly enjoyable job in a not for profit organisation in Sydney in something of a bizarre re-shuffle and a bit of managerial stupidity.
Rather than do the normal and sane thing and spend my days in an airless room bashing out job applications, I took my paltry severance money and hopped on a plane to Melbourne for what turned into an amazing, bizarre and frenetic week or more, tumbling about in a ring around Port Phillip Bay from Melbourne City to Mordialloc to Sorrento to Queenscliff to Geelong and back to fly out again.
Along the way I did some interviews, including this one on the day I arrived.
This is for a book I’ve had in the planning stages for roughly 20 years.
It’s about grief and how we approach it in Australia. Not from a clinical or psychological or medical approach, but how I cover most of my collected works: documenting how others observe and reflect on it.
The tome was inspired by my late brother who was diagnosed in 1995 and died in 1998 after a three year battle with brain cancer. So the first chapter is pretty much written – I just have to synthesise it down from the 60000 words it currently stands at, on disc drives, hard drives, thumb drives and even some old not-so-floppy discs.
Chapter Two is slated for the Craig Coombes story.
I still felt that it was worth putting the interview out in some form or other straight away. That was the plan, but to give you one of my favourite quotes, ‘If you want to give your god a good laugh, make some plans’.
Life has been unpredictable and eclectic since August 2013, though no better or worse so than any other person’s. My lifestyle has just not been conducive to doing what I’m doing now: sitting at a PC with good broadband, software that was produced this century, no one saying they’ve got this PC booked now, etc.
And, just as importantly, in the headspace to put this content together.
Interesting sidepoint, and one I don’t think I told Craig at the time or since: I had my Android phone running as a back-up for the interview, but I dead-set forgot to hit ‘Stop’ when I turned off the main Zoom recorder. I only noticed this as I was leaving.
Craig and I continued to talk for some time, and the discussion became more candid, as you would expect. I thought this would give some context and counterpoint some time down the track.
Except that I paid the price for my laxness of not uploading the sound file to my Dropbox in the clouds for safe storage. About five months ago, that Android ceased to function, taking a couple of interviews down with it.
I don’t know if a techie will be able to restore the data on it.
And gun to my head, I don’t recall what Craig and I discussed that bleak, rainy day in Greater Melbourne after the main recorder was switched off.
But I figure I’ll keep that phone in the same storage locker for a time and then see what secrets it may reveal at a later date, and with a little gentle persuasion.
Five days after the interview, I joined Craig, his family and friends for a get-together on Mordialloc Beach, for a bit of a kick-about, a chat, and the alarming sight of Craig and a friend getting down to bathers and going for a frigid dip in Port Phillip Bay.
(Once in, they modestly nuded up while keeping the twigs and berries under the waterline and away from view.)
At that event, I interviewed Peter Buchstaller, mentioned in dispatches above, but that’ll keep for another time and 3636 words, according to my counter.
For now, with a large German Shepherd trying to actively wrest my left hand off the keyboard (or take it off at the wrist if I don’t), I’ll leave this text to sit for an hour or so before formatting and photos/video, while I indulge in a bit of the rest of my life.
Holsworthy, NSW (this month)
12.36pm, Wednesday 14 October 2015