Hello, my friend, and welcome to Cancer Can Give! in this special series of the Simplify Cancer Podcast, we share inspirational stories of people who went on a grueling journey through cancer and yet, they found their own way to live, grow and give in a way that helps others. Today, it’s my absolute pleasure to introduce Olivia Clarke and we talk about being young adult with cancer and finding the humour where you least expect it. Olivia’s got this incredible message of making sense of your experience, through cancer, through humor, and stories and connect and she started Humor Beats Cancer, and she’s just this magnificent ray of light out in the world.


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Full Transcript

Olivia. Well, so good to have you.


Thank you. It’s always been so good working with you on different things and stuff. You talked that at our last event about a year ago. Really, your story was funny, but also very moving to and so people really walked away from it feeling so many emotions and stuff. I heard it was especially with yours too, your just your story that you shared about cancer and about just it just made people laugh, but also made them cry too. You hit all of the emotions. It’s really nice to be able to be on your podcast.


Thank you so much. I really appreciate your kind words. I remember you opening that fundraiser for humor beats cancer. I think it’s been during COVID because we were all online, but it’s just been such a beautiful thing to be there and to see all these amazing people there for this great cause. You put so much care, love into everything that you do like you really you really pour your heart into all of this. It really comes across. It obviously makes a difference for your incredible because, but I want to ask you how does it feel for you? I think it’s a big part of it is how does it also make you feel on the inside?


A little bit about me, I had cancer first, breast cancer stage two in 2015. Then in 2017, created Humor Beats Cancer, which is a nonprofit, that encourages using humor and writing as coping tools to deal with cancer. We have to do funny care packages for people going through cancer, we have a grant program, and we do open mics, where people read their funny stories, either virtually or in person. Then we also tried to think of interesting ways on social media to get people’s attention and to get them to share funny stories and to connect, so they feel less alone.

For me, when I had cancer the first time and so then I was diagnosed again in last fall, in 2021. This time, it’s stage four, and it’s metastasized to different organs and such. It has different meanings depending on where I’m at in my cancer journey. When I was in remission, it really was about how can I take my experience and try to find ways to make people feel less alone and to feel and to get them to laugh when that’s the last thing they could possibly think about doing?

Usually that’s through crude humor and just like having a good time is showing the real point of it is to show two things to show people feeling that they can feel alive while having cancer that they’re not gone and they’re still you’re living and to just to connect people who feel alone.

For me, that’s what it’s done for me is it really has reminded me, I’m going through the beginning stages of stage four. It’s interesting to learn about people who’ve been going through it for years, and it gives me hope. If someone would have told me stage four cancer, I would have been freaking out and thinking. You can live with it. It can be like something that you live with.

Sometimes it’s not, sometimes it hits you; you find out you have stage four, and you have a few months to live. It shows that there’s more than just one way of cancer happening to a person, and there’s and it can affect you in different ways. It makes me understand it a little bit better, and also feel less alone and feel like there’s a chance that I can keep fighting and keep doing what I can to stay alive. I really believe that this group of people ages like 20 to 45, for example, people don’t focus on them and their cancer enough. There’s a lot of support for childhood cancer, as well as a lot of for the for the elderly and older people who are going through cancer, but this middle group seems to get lost sometimes in the middle of everything.

It seems that they don’t really know how to deal with this group of people when they have cancer, because these are people who are still working, and who need to work, they haven’t built up a savings or built up a lot of ways to pay for the their treatment, and they still have to work, they maybe want to have kids or a date, and it’s all happening at the same time that they have cancer. That too has been helpful to me to know that while the medical community may not be looking at this group of people as closely as they can, our nonprofit, at least can bring everybody together to talk about things that upset them things that they wish were different, or to ask questions this is happening to me what should I do? People provide their own just perspective.

I mean we’re not doctors, but like to say when, when my feet started peeling, this is the stuff I did. There are so many things I didn’t realize with cancer. It’s been supportive to me, and also just makes me happy to know that I can help people in some tiny way. It makes me feel like my life, I did something good for people. That’s always been my goal. I just really want to help people in some way, and, and help people feel less alone, because I’ve felt alone times through my life. That’s really what it’s done for me.


That’s beautiful love, it just speaks to my heart. I’m so glad you brought up that this whole young adult going through cancer and experience in the sense of being alone, because oftentimes, when cancer hits you at this time, it’s like you say it’s life interrupted, because you’re going on some a journey. As if something just throws you off, and all of a sudden, you have to completely change things around. You’re not in a place where people around you. Maybe when you’re older, you’re in a place where people around you they understand how to deal with grief, they understand how to deal with difficult times that it’s a different situation. What do you think because, obviously, you’ve seen a lot of folks, young adults in their 20s and 30s and 40s go through cancer, what do you think that we have in common?


What we have in common is we have so many more dreams ahead of us, we have so many more life stages ahead of us. Just as you said, that’s a great way of putting it, it’s like life interrupted. It’s just really, there’s just a lot of like sadness, honestly. There are people who maybe went to college and you’re like, I’m going to be this when I when I’m done College, and then boom, you get hit with cancer. Then you have to put that on hold while all of your friends are advancing during the highlights of life having kids, dating, marriage, promotions at work, things like that. All of that gets put on hold, and we’re living in this limbo of should I date? No, or yes? Should we have children? Yes or no. Even like if they get married whether going through cancer treatment, it’s probably you didn’t want to be bald, if you’re a woman at your wedding.

I think for these other groups particularly the older, those who get cancer older in life, have had a chance to have do all those things and have that chance to see their children grow up or even meet their grandchildren, where there’s. There are so many families who lose one of their loved ones when maybe their kids are two or three or four. They will know a totally different situation and, and the kids will miss out on stuff and the parents will miss out on things. I just think what connects us all together is that limbo, not knowing how our life is going to be.

I know that nobody knows what’s going to happen with them, or if they’re going to get hit by a car or whatever. You are immobile almost, because it’s hard to make decisions. It’s like, at the start, when I found out I had stage four cancer, one of the doctors said, I was like, so how serious is this? They unkindly said that, well, maybe you should start working on that bucket list. I felt like that was such a horrible thing to say to someone, but people don’t think that that’s what they should say or not say and like. I think that that’s what it is, is that we’re just all in this time of indecision where we could just keep trying to stay alive, but also want to be living life our family and friends are.


You described it beautifully because you are stuck in this in between land, you’re constantly in between things. I think the other thing that I just remember coming home, I’ve done like my operation and chemo, and I remember feeling so overwhelmed and things that really made sense before, they certainly don’t make sense now. You have to reinvent yourself at least once. Under this reinvention process you have to find something again, that you can be connected to something that you’re passionate about. That’s why I want to ask you though, because you went through this process and you. You found your way to create humor beats cancer, but how did you how did you lead up to it? What made you think about what to do next?


After I was diagnosed the first time, I started I started thinking about my life and how I didn’t feel like I wasn’t doing enough. I started first just volunteering, and not cancer related volunteering, but just working with people who are poor or need food, or people who are trying hard to raise their kids in a poor community. I started volunteering with them and really trying to help. Then as I was going through cancer treatment, I kept seeing these funny situations happen. That I just thought were dark humor, funny things. I wondered if any other people had been seeing those kinds of things. I took a stab and I decided, well, I’m going to scrape this nonprofit. I’m going to start it off with just a blog.

Then it just started growing. I started picking up ideas. I’m always trying to create projects, and there are so many projects I’ve worked on that just failed or did it, they kept trying. I and I just kept thinking and then I just really believed in this idea. I just kept talking about it so much. Finally, I’m just going to try it. Then I just kept growing. When my mom passed away, and we said instead of giving flowers, if they could give money to his credit grant program in her name to Humor Beats Cancer. We were able to do that.

Then care packages, I realized there are so many care packages that are just so not useful. They’re just a bunch of branded materials that don’t really help in any way. I started thinking about, well, what would I want if I was one of the care packages, and so I’ve tried to make it more special, funnier and more appropriate for our age group than what it’s what I’ve seen other places do. I started doing that I really didn’t want when I when I got cancer, I received this book and I just have lilies on it and it looked like it was like, here’s your roadmap to dying.

I just did not want to have that that vibe so we stay away from a lot of lilies everywhere and pink and were more like red and primary colors and things like that to show that we can talk to you as at your age, and we could talk to you in a way that we use profanity. Most of these nonprofits don’t even do that. Most don’t do those kinds of things. I really think that’s what got me started. then I just, I just feel like it’s been successful, and it’s keeps growing, and I just know that it’s doing good. That’s all I can ask for is for it to be doing good.


I think it’s such a beautiful thing, first of all, that you said that you’ve done a lot of things and, and so many of them failed, because it’s so true, we do things and we all have dreams, and we have ambitions, and sometimes they just they don’t work out and that’s part of life.


That’s also like, a message for people going into cancer is that like, isn’t that how they know the doctors treat it, like we try a medicine or if treatment for a while that that doesn’t work, we go to the next thing. That’s how I’ve operated through life, I have trouble giving up on ideas and things that I really feel passionate about. I keep trying different ways and then I’m getting closer and closer to getting it right the first time. Usually, it takes like five, six times before I can make something how I truly see it in my head and stuff. I think that’s like the message is just don’t give up on anything.

I and I think maybe it doesn’t mean that we’re going to all be cancer, I’m going to beat cancer, but at least it makes life more fun to really be in that you have some sort of control over something. I think that starting a project or making jewelry or knitting scarves or things like that are all things that people could be doing well, they’re sitting in chemo chair, or whatever. That might make them feel good.

They’re contributing something to the world. Whether it’s just to make one or two people smile. That’s great. That’s perfect. That’s the thing to do. I know it can be hard when everybody’s so tired, because I’m tired all the time. You hope that the positivity will give you energy and it’ll help carry you through.


Exactly, Olivia, it’s so powerful, what you say because it really connects you with what it is that that helps you to get through a difficult time and connects you with something that that just lights you up in some way and gives you that energy, in a time when you probably needed the most. I find it very inspiring how you talk about that you started. You started from just like taking the first step and then it leads you towards something else. Then it leads you to something else. It probably leads you to a place where you didn’t really plan out to be you didn’t have this project plan mapped out, you just started with something and it just kept growing like you say, so it’s not it doesn’t have to be this overwhelming thing.


Yes, which is something I’ve learned over the years because I used to get, I think of a project and I would never start because I was always overwhelmed thinking of like the next the next step or the end goal and how am I ever going to get there? I’m trying to be better about that. I think Humor Beats Cancer is a good example of me taking it step by step because sometimes we’re not as big as the other organizations or we’re not doing this or that and stuff. It’s really hard not to compare yourself but that does really no good to like to compare yourself because everybody’s on like a separate journey on their projects. I’m trying to be trying to try to be more kind to myself and not being like man, get your ass in gear, it’s definitely been an interesting journey with Humor Beats Cancer.


Exactly. I’m so glad that you brought this up believe it because it’s so special and I think that’s what we do in our age as well, it’s like we end up comparing ourselves to other people where they’re at, where they’re where they’re going and you got to be beating find ways to be more kind to yourself and not beat yourself up or saying well this person has got this, and I may I might be in a place where I’m struggling. I don’t have what they have and what helps you to feel to be more kind to you?


It’s hard, it really is hard because I’m really tough on myself. I just am a type A personality through and through from a baby on up. I’ve always been. I really have I have a really solid group of wonderful friends and loved ones who I just really lean on. Sometimes they have to remind me that to be like Olivia, it’s fine, you’re doing a lot, you’re doing enough. I also go to therapy, and that’s also reinforced there too, because for so long I would ruin fun things that I have accomplished. I’m thinking, well, it was it was okay. It could be better; it could always be better and stuff.

I think it’s having people around me remind me of the good that I’m trying to do and remind me that I’m I am making a difference. I don’t have to be Oprah. I can be I can try to take some of Oprah’s lessons and use them to my benefit and stuff. It’s about and it’s also just about remembering the good times and remembering I had a really great experience at this event.

I feel like others did, too. That this was a good day. It’s really hard. My advice for anybody going through something similar is just to have a strong group of people around you, who are there to remind you, and during those times when you get down on yourself, and then also just to really keep little notes on your mirror that say you’re awesome, or you can do this or that. I think that’s been really helpful.

I have like three or four on my on my mirror right now. I know other friends should do that, too. When you look in the mirror in the morning, you can see those and be like, yes, this is how I’m going to start my day. I don’t want to pretend to be good at this, because this is really hard for me. I really try. I really try. I think that’s some of the ways I try.


No, that’s what makes you perfect, Olivia. I love this advice, putting stuff on the mirror. It’s real, because that’s how you look, and you look at yourself. To me, it’s been almost a revelation at one point of my life, to look at myself in the mirror and tell myself good things about me. It’s hard, isn’t it? Like sometimes you’ve got to say good things to yourself.


It is it’s so hard. It’s so much easier for me to compliment someone or to try to lift someone up that I that I don’t think about doing that for myself. Like there’s some sort of saying, I can’t remember who said it, but something like, the way you talk to yourself, would you let people talk to your friends that way? Like if you’re, if you’re down on yourself, and you’re beating yourself up, but if you saw your friend doing that you would stop them and say, no, you’re amazing, you’re great, you’re doing a wonderful job. We have to treat ourselves just like we treat our friends and our loved ones, we have to celebrate ourselves too.

Not in like a cocky way, but just in a way that makes you happy to still be alive. I think that’s super important for people going through cancer, because it’s really easy to go come down on yourself and live. there are many days when I have a bad day. I’m just like, I just don’t know if I can get up and work and then do all these things and stuff. Then it just like telling yourself either today’s not the day to do them, or maybe do one thing. Maybe that’ll help you show that you accomplished something for the day and stuff. Those are some things I tried to do. I don’t want to have cancer; it’s slowing me down. I don’t want to be slowed down. I want to keep moving. I want to keep doing things. I hate that cancer makes that more difficult to do.


Exactly. I love this one thing that day. I’ve also arrived at this live as well is focusing on getting one thing done every day. Sometimes it’s something that I’m really proud of. Sometimes it’s like taking a shower or whatever. It doesn’t have to be some epic thing. Then you feel like, I’ve done it. I also want to circle back to what you said like when to talk about it with your friends and family. That’s not an easy thing to do either sometimes, but sometimes you have people around you but but like talking about things like difficult moments is hard. Sometimes you don’t know how to put things sometimes you don’t want other people to feel awkward or weird about it. It’s so vital to find ways to talk about going through a difficult time with people around you. That’s what they’re there for.


For me, sometimes it’s hard, when this all went down in the fall and then also got worse at the beginning of the year. All my friends were like, what can we do? What can we do? It was so hard for me to think of like, because I like to be self-sufficient. It really was about like it really was about I’m trying to find little things that I can ask people to help me with, could you get my groceries? Or could you carry my packages up that are at the front desk.

Little things like that, people really felt good. They felt like they were helping. I realized that it’s important not just for me, but for them too, because they don’t want too just be helpless. I think that that has been an important lesson I’ve learned the second time around, that maybe I didn’t understand before. That’s been a real challenge. It’s definitely something that’s been helpful is just to include friends and family into my journey in different ways. I can’t say I do well every time but I’m trying for sure.


It’s super empowering. As you say, the people who truly care about you, the people who really care about you, they will be so grateful, right when you ask them to do something, because as you say, it gives them an opportunity to step up to be there for you in a meaningful way. it also prevents help that that you don’t want.


Exactly. If you don’t share what you need, you’re going to get random stuff that you don’t need. It’s definitely about really little things. Like, it’s so funny, because I was like to let it’s difficult to think of things, but then even just like a ride somewhere, or to a doctor appointment, or something like that, it can switch it up a little bit and can bring someone else into this journey with us and stuff. I’ve also learned that I’ve also learned that my friends, there are different things that they’re good at like, there’s different things like, certain friends are good for crying, together on the phone, certain people are really good about, let’s pick up and go away for a weekend, or there are certain friends who are really good cooks, who want to make a meal for you.

There are just all kinds of different support. Together, all that support can be so helpful. I love my friends, but they’ve gone to just like a whole new level of being there for me and checking in on me. It’s just wonderful. for people who don’t have any sort of friends, or maybe they’re completely alone, I think that reaching out to some of the organizations they like, reaching out to us, I mean we’d love to send them a care package, check in on them occasionally any of that stuff. I think that there are people out there who want to help and want to be there for us, but it’s hard to see when there’s so much shit in our life. It’s just so hard to see it.


I’m so glad that you bring this up to go out and get connected with like Humor Beats Cancer, other organizations that you believe in, that makes you feel not alone. That’s one of the critical things about what can support us and help us and hearing other people’s stories. I think just the fact alone that other people are going through similar things, I really look at everything that you see from Humor Beats Cancer on your blog, or whether it’s the socials and these little beats, where people say some inappropriate things. People share that because it’s hilarious or it’s inappropriate. It’s what helps us to understand, it’s not just me who’s had this story, but it’s other people. I’ve seen that as well. That in itself is such a huge thing, isn’t it?


It is, it’s so funny, because you do think at least I thought, well, I’m the only one to experience this thing. Then all of a sudden, you’re like 12/15/20 people are like, my God, that same thing happened to me too, and stuff. It’s definitely like, we may start out with the humorous thing, but then like it has been turned serious where people are getting tips from each other over social media, and they’ve never met each other. There are so many people who, who celebrate people’s accomplishments, and when dealing with cancer, who they’ve never met in person, and they don’t know and so it’s just I think that’s the coolest thing.

I when people bash social media, I always say, well there are positives in it, too. I think that this is a positive that people all over like you and I would never have connected. We were in completely different places. We’ve done that because of Humor Beats Cancer, and I think there’s so many other stories like that, where people may only know each other virtually, but they helped save someone from either living out the rest of their life in despair or just to get through this moment in their life.

It just depends on the person and the type of cancer and what’s going on with them. I just think it’s amazing. I don’t know, what we would have done without social media during COVID. I don’t know what we would have done without social media during cancer and doing all these things. I just think it really brings people closer together when used right.


It’s so true. Thank you for that reminder, I remember when the whole COVID thing started, because you go through cancer, you’re used to this isolation thing. I was like I used to jump across the street when I was going through chemo, when they saw the person walking toward me, so I was isolated before it was Covid. We’re very used to this world anyway. Sometimes, that’s one of the few things that you can do is, is to contact someone online or on video, or somehow on socials where you can interact with them. You are probably sometimes you don’t feel safe interacting with people in real life.


I love when I see like conversations about, and it’s not like from medical opinions, it’s more like I’m dealing with, say, the side effects from this drug, what would you recommend, and then just see all these creative things people have done after trying things and this not working, and I’ll try this. Then you find like something so strange works. Then you try it and you’re like, my God, this helps me so much and stuff. I really think that that is just beautiful, you know?


A huge part of it is also is also learning to tell your story, because I think part of it is what can be really helpful is finding a way to share your story, whether that’s on social media, whether that’s doing some sort of a project I don’t know, writing a book, I know you’ve got your beautiful posts on your blog with people sharing their experiences. This is such a big deal for you like storytelling. What are some of the thoughts that you have, how do you tell your story? In a way, you’re going through cancer, you’ve been through it. Or you have a loved one who’s dealing with it? How do you how do you put it into words?


For me, it is using humor a lot of times, because I want people when I’m telling them to not be so turned off by me and the subject, that we never talk about it again. they start avoiding me. I always find that, I mean people, some people are like, my God, that’s a lot for Monday coffee conversation. I’m honest about it. I’m also like to put some humor in there too. that to take the tension out of the room. It is serious what we’re all going through, there’s no reason to make light of it, or to really make it seem like it’s not a big deal, because it is a big deal. I do try to if I’m writing it down, or if I’m telling someone, I tell the seriousness of it, but then I also share some of the funnier stuff, too.

Like, there’s just weird things that happen to your body and to you. Depending on how close you are with the person, that’s the stuff I’ll share. That’s where I wanted mine to be different from other organizations, is that I didn’t want it to be just about the sad stories, I wanted it to be about what life is like for people truthfully, and like the funny things as well as like the, the things your kid says about you about you, it’s full, because you have cancer and stuff like that. That’s what makes us a little different is that I think that some organizations really like to focus in on let’s tell me your sad story.

I don’t know if that’s as helpful as it seems, to cancer patients, because then you go deeper and deeper into that hole of depression, and you feel like that’s all you are, is cancer. Whereas, if you’re sharing it, and you’re sharing humorous stories, people can relate more, that helps spread the word a bit more about cancer and to talk about that everybody doesn’t die from cancer, and some people do go into remission, and some people do last a long time. I want people to get educated on cancer, who maybe don’t know, and they can do that through me. I think that’s a great idea.

Yes, absolutely. It was a beautiful reminder that I realized why I’ve been turning some people off, that certain part of my cancer journey. Probably having too deep and meaningful conversations about it. Maybe talking about other things can be better, because it can be more healing. Sometimes like you say, I think it’s really important when we’re talking about the humorous side of cancer, not because it’s great, but because it’s finding this awkward way. It also gives us permission, I think, to also talk with people more openly about things that are not related to cancer.

I think so. I do, I think it opens up. I feel like when we get cancer, this bubble comes up, and a lot of time comes around us. It separates us from rest of the world. I like to try to pop the bubble and say what, I’m still watching Bravo reality shows, I’m still eating way too much ice cream, I’m still doing all these other things, I’m still me, cancer is just one piece of me. It’s an important piece, because it can often be a life-or-death piece. It’s not all of me I still, I still enjoy going to concerts, I still enjoy junk food, I still enjoy work.

I do think that sometimes we don’t often help our cause in a way because it’s like, we talk about it in such a negative way that people don’t think there’s any hope to you know living. I really think it’s about talking more about cancer in ways that are relatable to people, not just to make them feel comfortable, but for us to be brought back into society sometimes. To your point, though, about COVID, I think that that actually was strangely, just the conversations about COVID helped our cause, because people finally got what it was like to have to be stuck in at home and isolated from people like you described.

They notice like they have to go the doctors a bunch of times, and you have to go because some people got COVID had to keep going to the doctor. I feel like that it really like showed a lot of people who have not had any exposure to illness, what it’s like for us, and I think that that is that is a that’s a positive side effect of COVID when there’s so many so many negative parts. I think that that’s how I look at cancer, there’s has to be some positives, something that’s going to help the next group of people going through cancer, is that something that we all can do, and I think that is talking about it more in a relatable way with others.


Exactly. there’s so much about it, when we when you talk about something that happens, you’re also in the process of redefining yourself redefining how you see the world. It changes your body, it changes the way that you feel it changes the way that you look at life, and the process of sharing your story, doing something that you might feel passionate about that somehow excites you, trying to make a difference in your own way, in whatever way that is. That helps us to redefine ourselves and get, I don’t want to say comfortable, but get okay with living in whatever your reality is. Ultimately, you can feel good about yourself.


I agree with you. There’s just so much to cancer, beyond the diagnosis and the treatment that I don’t think we talk about enough. I feel like whether we live or die, those of us who will get cancer will forever be changed. There are going to be things that about us that that’s different. There are going to be things that we appreciate differently and things in life that we think about more and stuff like that, and I think that that it can be a gift.

I think for me I didn’t really get that I wasn’t giving back enough to the world in some way. I got cancer and then I was dealing with it, and I was like, my gosh like I was sick of myself. When you’re in cancer, it’s all about you all the time. Like it’s like and then you you’re done with the treatment, and then you’re like a poorly lit alone, and you’re like, now there’s nobody here at all. Nobody cares. I think that it really, it showed me that by doing these little things that I could still do have a meaningful place in this world. I think regardless of if I have cancer or not, so I think those that was important.


That’s beautiful. That’s so inspiring, because as you say, it finds you a place to give, to feel get a sense of belonging beyond yourself. I think that’s so vital, on our journeys to cancer to find that sense of something of belonging to something that is that you care about, and the way to make sense of life beyond cancer.


It’s really hard. All I think about is cancer. By doing Human Beats Cancer, it helps take take the focus off on me, and helps me focus on other people in a different way. Still related to what I’m going through, but like, I feel like people who get in volved with us and who share their thoughts and stories are really I see that in them too. I feel like they’re very joyful people, generally speaking, they don’t want to just sit and like stew in their cancer story.

They want to really make the most of their life no matter how long it is, I feel like that’s another thing Cancer gives us, it reminds us that everybody’s going to pass away at some time. You don’t think about it if you’re healthy, you just assume you’re going to live forever. I think it’s we’re given the gift of like, a reminder that life is precious, and life is short. That we only have so many times to do good in the world or to or to love our loved ones. Now’s the time, and you don’t wait to say the things that you’ve been wanting to say to someone you care about do it now because you just don’t know, you don’t know what’s going to happen to anybody. That’s what I keep trying to remind myself too.


That’s a beautiful thing. Olivia, I want to thank you so much for being here so much for sharing this, and for what you do in the world, because I think it’s so vital.

Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it. It was it was a great conversation. thank you.



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