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Bridge of Don’s Aiden Cowie: Cancer took my eye, and now I’m a stand-up comedian

The 25-year-old is to play in front of 3,000 people at the Armadillo in Glasgow. It's just one of many things that have happened since he survived a rare form of cancer.

A photo of Aiden from before his surgery and a photo of Aiden now at home in Bridge of Don
Aiden Cowie had his right eye removed in a life-saving operation in 2018. Today he is a stand-up comic that jokes about his missing eye. Image: Aiden Cowie/DC Thomson

We are sitting in Aiden Cowie’s family home in Bridge of Don talking about his cancer.

The 25-year-old is one this year’s batch of Brave models who in May will walk the catwalk at P&J Live for the annual fashion show fundraiser in aid of Friends of Anchor.

All 24 models have their own history with cancer. For Aiden, it is his diagnosis at the age of 18 of an extremely rare sarcoma that eventually left him without a right eye.

Here, sitting on the sofa of the house he grew up in, he’s gone through the whole story — the shock diagnosis, the chemotherapy he almost couldn’t finish and his life-saving, life-changing face operation.

Aiden gestures with his hands while sitting on a sofa at home in Bridge of Don
Aiden at home in Bridge of Don. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

As we talk, we hear Aiden’s mum Denise come in the back door.

She sticks her head through from the kitchen, asking if I want a coffee, but also apologising for interrupting.

I tell her it’s ok, as Aiden and I have already gone through the horrible bits. It’s safe for her to listen in.

She laughs. “Oh, the horrible bits,” Denise says. I can almost see her shudder. “Now, the comedy. That’s the good bit.”

From budding comedian to warm-up for Gary Meikle

Yes, the comedy.

Cancer has a lot of side effects, not many of them funny.

For Aiden, however, his cancer journey has led him to become a stand-up comedian, mining humour from the darkness of his experience. As he tells me, if you don’t laugh, you might cry.

So far, it’s gone better than he could have hoped for. He’s done about 100 gigs and is a regular support act to award-winning Glaswegian comedian Gary Meikle.

Aiden Cowie with comedian Gary Meilkle
Aiden and Gary Meikle at a gig in Lanark last month. Image: Supplied by Aiden Cowie

Just a few days previously, Gary asked Aiden — on stage and in front of an audience — to be his warm-up for a gig this August at the Armadillo in Glasgow.

Some 3,000 people will be watching. It is a dream come true.

As proud mum Denise said, this is definitely the good bit.

“The thought of you in front of 3,000 people in Glasgow is mad,” she says, shaking her head, a proud mum who can’t quite believe how things have turned out.

“You think you’re dreaming.  You really do.”

A one-in-a-million cancer diagnosis

Speaking statistically, Aiden should never have got his cancer in the first place.

His sarcoma affects just one in a million people. What’s more, it is usually diagnosed in older people, not 18-year-olds near the end of their first year at Robert Gorden University.

So when Aiden got a lump on his cheek, and a constantly blocked nose on one side, he didn’t think much of it.

Even when it was diagnosed as cancer, it still seemed unreal.

The situation only hit home when his oncologist gave him the unvarnished truth.

His cancer was called mesenchymal chondrosarcoma. It was in his sinus cavity, but the fist-sized tumour was wrapped around the nerves of his right eye. The operation to remove it would leave Aiden with one eye.

Aiden gives a thumbs up to camera while standing on a boat and talking on the phone
Aiden before his cancer diagnosis. Image: Supplied by Aiden Cowie

The alternative would be to not have the surgery, which would give Aiden — at best — six to 12 months to live.

The news was terrifying.

“I totally broke down,” Aiden says. “Hearing what it was, what it might do, what the treatment was going to be, and what THAT was going to do to me…”

It was his family that helped him keep going.

His nephew Oliver was four years old at the time and his sister Ashley had just had another baby, Aiden’s niece Lyana.

“I wanted to see them grow up,” he says. “I wanted to be there for them. That was one of the things that told me I needed to try everything I can to be here.”

Treatment and the pain of radiotherapy ulcers

Aiden’s resolve was soon tested.

The grueling rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy ahead of the operation almost made him quit and only the intervention of his parents and his oncologist, who again laid out the stark consequences of giving up, changed his mind.

A selfie of Aiden without any hair during his chemo treatment
Aiden in the middle of his chemotherapy treatment. Image: Supplied by Aiden Cowie

Some of the darkest moments came from his radiotherapy. The treatment left his mouth covered in ulcers and he dropped 20kg because eating was too painful.

“It was like having sunburn on the inside of your mouth,” he says. “I’ve never felt anything like it.”

Dark doubts and the euphoria of the all clear

Aiden eventually had three operations, and was in surgery for 33 hours over the course of seven days. Skin and soft tissue were taken from his stomach to replace the tissue removed from his face.

He has memories of that time but isn’t sure whether they are real or ones his brain has made to fill in the gaps.

When it was over, he had to wait a month for his all clear, during which time doubts started to creep in.

“What if they say it’s not worked?” Aiden remembers thinking. “And I’ve gone through this for six months of whatever life I have left.”

Aiden leans against a wooden fence at his home in Bridge of Don
Aiden says his cancer journey gave him the courage to do stand-up. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

Even when he got the news from his oncologist that the cancer was gone, he couldn’t quite believe it. He was sure there would be more chemo, or another surgery. Something.

But no. In a small room in a hospital in Glasgow, he was told his margins were clear. He was — to all intents and purposes — cancer free, and will live a normal, healthy rest of his life.

“Even now thinking about it, it all seems surreal,” Aiden says. “I’d been given the most unlikely of second chances.”

The comedian Aiden Cowie emerges

Aiden tells people he is a completely different person post-cancer.

“I think in many ways I’m almost grateful that it happened,” he says.

He went back to university and threw himself into the mechanical engineering degree that he’d previously considered scrapping, even before he got ill. He even did a Masters, finishing last year with a distinction.

Then there’s the stand-up. He’d always liked comedy — he loved the frantic, high-tempo English comic Lee Evens.

But stepping out on stage was not something he’d seriously considered until cancer came along.

Aiden Cowie performs on stage in Livingston last year
Aiden on stage in Livingston last year. Image: Supplied by Aiden Cowie

So, six months after his operation, and with jokes he’d written as he lay in bed recovering, he booked a gig at Aberdeen’s Breakneck Comedy club. To his surprise, it went well.

“It was a weird thing,” he recalls. “Once I was on stage and people started to laugh, I relaxed. I started thinking to myself, I can do this.”

Using comedy to address the way Aiden now looks

The key was Aiden’s first joke.

It’s a line he still uses as his opener today, so I won’t spoil it here. But not only is it a good joke — I laugh when Aiden tells me it — it directly addresses his missing eye.

“That’s always been the intention,” he explains. “Addressing it right from the start lets them all relax.”

But what works on stage doesn’t always work in real life. People are rarely rude to him — except online, where it happens more often — but he knows he is being stared at.

Some days are good; he can laugh off the comments and stares. But on the bad days he feels he is grieving for the person he used to be.

Comedian Aiden Cowie on stage at the Breakneck club in Aberdeen
Aiden at Aberdeen’s Breakneck Comedy club. Image: Supplied by Aiden Cowie

“My nurses would say that I need to adapt to the new normal,” he says. “But what is the new normal? I don’t know what that is.

“Even now it’s something I’m trying to puzzle out. What is life now?”

The stand-up, then, can often function as therapy. Some of his jokes are about his cancer, and the experiences he went through.

The trick, though, is to make it funny.

“It’s not as hard as it sounds, though I maybe shouldn’t say that,” he says, laughing. “And, anyway, if you can’t laugh about things, what’s the point?”

From P&J Live to the Armadillo

Aiden describes his life as a “work in progress”.

He’s looking forward to the Brave fashion show, and says he felt an instant kinship with his 23 fellow models when they met last month.

His catwalk stint at the P&J Live, however, will only be in front of about 750 people.

When he steps out on stage at the Armadillo in Glasgow, the crowd will be four times the size. And everyone will be looking at him.

He’s confident, however; it’s another upside to joking about his missing eye.

“I’ve created a niche for myself,” Aiden laughs. “No other comedian can steal my jokes.”

Aiden will take part in Brave 2024 at P&J Live on May 16 and 17. He is raising money for the Friends of Anchor charity through his own JustGiving page.

Courage on the Catwalk and Brave logos

Aiden Cowie: Cancer at 18 changed all my plans but prompted ‘post-traumatic growth’