'I turned to drag to cope with my diva of a cancer'

Jay Swinnerton and alter ego ‘Shanika Sunrise’
Jay Swinnerton became Shanika Sunrise to cope with their cancer treatment [PA Media]

A drag queen who was diagnosed with cancer twice in one year said discovering their “menace” alter ego saved their life during gruelling treatment.

Jay Swinnerton created Shanika Sunrise to cope while they were treated for Hodgkin lymphoma in 2017, aged 19.

The artist from Manchester’s said they feared they were “going to die many times” and decided to “camp this up and make something fabulous” in a “horrible situation”.

“It literally got me through my whole experience”, Jay said.

Jay Swinnerton on stage as ‘Shanika Sunrise’
The artist who lives in Manchester has toured with RuPaul's Drag Race stars [PA Media]

They trialled four different drugs, and underwent a bone marrow transplant in February 2019, before remission thanks to a new immunotherapy drug at the Christie Hospital.

The 26-year-old non-binary artist has since gone on to star in countless gigs as Shanika, toured internationally with RuPaul's Drag Race stars.

Jay Swinnerton as alter ego ‘Shanika Sunrise’
Jay Swinnerton credits their drag person for their cancer recovery [PA Media]

Jay first underwent chemotherapy following their first diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma in March 2017, which left them “devastated”.

Doctors found the cancer after Jay, who was a history student at the University of Warwick, complained feeling run down and of swollen lymph nodes in their neck.

'Pretty hard-hitting'

Faced with the prospect of losing their hair, friends decided to buy Jay a "lilac wig with bangs", and they started wearing make-up for hospital treatment.

“I started to do drag, and Shanika Sunrise was this product of my experience, and this coping mechanism,” they said.

They entered remission in September 2017 after successful treatment, but the next year relapsed, learning the cancer had spread.

Jay said the news was “obviously pretty hard-hitting”, and doctors wanted them to have a bone marrow transplant, because “with refractory lymphoma, it's not going to go away, it's a bit of a diva”.

Jay Swinnerton
Friends bought Jay a wig as they began to lose hair during chemotherapy [PA Media]

They began vlogging their treatment on social media, describing the second round of cancer treatment as "season two in the Netflix series" of their life.

Nurses at the Christie helped Jay nurture their “young queer spirit", and strengthened their desire to beat cancer, Jay said.

"You're pushed to such extremes, both physically and mentally, your mind just goes to places that you didn't even think were possible prior to having had that experience.

"I just saw myself as this conqueror of my experience, I was like a pop star and I was making a film, and it all comes down to this creative way that I tried to process things with.”

Since remission, Jay has completed a history and Italian degree at the University of Manchester, and released several songs as an artist.

They even went back to The Christie at Christmas 2023 to do a concert for everyone, performing as Shanika Sunrise, with the nurses joining the celebrations.

"I genuinely don't think I would have made it without her," Jay said.

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