Humor Healing: James Junes uses the power of humor to overcome adversity
Navajo-Hopi comic recently recovered from second bout with cancer

James Junes speaks about life at 53, his family and battling cancer at Northern Arizona University Jan. 27. (Alexandra Wittenberg/ Navajo-Hopi Observer)

James Junes speaks about life at 53, his family and battling cancer at Northern Arizona University Jan. 27. (Alexandra Wittenberg/ Navajo-Hopi Observer)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — In December, comedian James Junes turned 53. His family surprised him by getting him a cake of an exposed butt crack riding out of a pair of blue jeans.

Scrawled across the cheeks were edible letters that spelled “Cancer can kick it!” with a heart.

Junes relied on his humor and strong faith to get him through his second bout of colon cancer, which was detected in spring 2023. At the time, he had already started his Humor Healing tour.

“I was on the road, I was flying high, the next thing I know I start hurting again,” Junes told the crowd at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff Jan. 27. “I start hurting more and more. And I say, ‘Wow, I hope it’s not the same thing again.”

Unfortunately, a colonoscopy showed that his abdominal pain was due to just that: another growth on his colon like the one that he had removed in 2018. This growth was on the other side of his colon this time.

“If you’re not familiar with the colon, it looks like a horseshoe. Everybody has a colon,” he said. “Cancer is smart – this is what I found out. It lurks in your body and acts like it doesn’t make you sick until it grows and grows. And you won’t feel it until it gets to stage 3 or stage 4.”

Junes went to the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center and underwent surgery to remove the growth in October. He took eight weeks off to recover, having to cancel some events.

“It was very humbling to have a hospital bag that hung off my belly here,” Junes said. “I thought that was going to be the rest of my life. I couldn’t stand for very long, I couldn’t even walk…I just had to really be careful of what I did in the recovery. I’m still making recovery here but I’m back on the road … full force.”

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James Junes gives a thumb’s up during his stand-up performance at Northern Arizona University’s Ardrey Auditorium in Flagstaff, Ariz. Jan. 27. Navajo singer Talibeh Begay opened for him with songs and drumming. (Alexandra Wittenberg/NHO)

Now, Junes is back on stage, and between laughs, uses his experience being sick to urge his audience to advocate for their own health.

“This cancer is gone, totally gone. I don’t have to worry about that again,” Junes said. “So yes, two different growths, early stages of detection. So men and women that are here that are over the age of 35, please get checked…colonoscopy, endoscopy, all of those things.”

A comedic start

Junes lives in Farmington, New Mexico with his wife and four children, including a set of twins. He is Navajo and Hopi. On his Navajo side, his clans are Red Water and Bear People, with maternal grandparents of Tangle Clan and paternal grandparents Water Edge People clan. His Hopi side is of the Roadrunner Clan from Hotevilla, Arizona.

Junes teamed up with prolific Navajo actor and comedian Ernie Tsosie III in 2001 after the two came in first and second place in a comedy competition. The duo were known as James&Ernie for over two decades as they went on tour together, and Junes said that even now he hears people whispering, “there goes James&Ernie,” when he’s out walking by himself.

Junes has a few acting credits to his name as well, including playing Hammer, a frybread security guard in “More Than Frybread,” in 2011 and Leroy Leroy in “Drunktown’s Finest” in 2014.

He also emcees, using humor and his laid-back energy to break the ice at events like tribal health conferences.

But Junes has primarily been using his comedic background to infuse comedy into his motivational speeches. Dubbing his style “humor healing,” he has toured all over the southwest, and visited different tribes around North America, including in Alaska and Canada.

“I believe we can make each other better by sharing what we have endured,” Junes said. “I call my presentations ‘Humor-Healing’ because I want to inspire a lifestyle of wellness and good health.”

Words to live by

At the NAU event, Junes spoke about addictions, some — like his alcohol addiction — he beat years ago, are obvious. Others — like Starbucks coffee or cell phones, are more normalized but just as addictive. He shared a time he was so distracted by his cell phone he accidentally walked into a womens restroom, only realizing his mistake when he heard the clip clop of high heels against the tile after making himself comfortable at the stall.

His second cancer scare has forced Junes to look at his age.

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James Junes battled colon cancer in 2018 and again in 2023. He got an operation in October 2023 and is now back on tour. He encourages everyone to get checked. (Photo/James Junes)

“I’m 53. Oh man, I’m 53. My knees hurt, my ankle hurts, my hip hurts. If I knew my body was going to hurt this much at this age I would have kept smoking weed,” he said, laughing with the audience. “I smoked so much weed back then I still have the munchies today.”

Junes knows that he could have easily stayed on the destructive path that seemed laid out before him, but had to stand up and shape his life into what he wanted it to be, not what others’ expected.

“If I listened to people 23 years ago that said, ‘oh, you’ll never amount to anything, you’ll always be an alcoholic, you’ll always be part of domestic violence,’ (I’d never be here),” Junes said. “Yeah, that was my life and now I’m here. I don’t live that type of life. I’m investing in the next generation.”

Junes applies traditional Navajo teachings with the hardships of the modern world, interjecting Navajo sentences into his English.

“What’s the worst that you can say in Navajo to cuss somebody out?

There’s no F-bomb’s, there’s no B-bombs, there’s nothing like that,” Junes said. “So that should tell you something. That the language in itself carries a discipline right here…that’s the one core value – listen – you’re going to listen with your heart. You can hear with your ears, but you listen with your heart.”

Junes said the best way to overcome tragedy is to be honest. He mentioned the affirmation of hozho naasha.

“They always talk about it, ‘walk in beauty,’ woo. They don’t understand, this road is really tough. I try to walk that road,” Junes said. “Thank you for allowing cancer to be a part of my life so that others don’t have to hurt, so that they can catch cancer early… that they can live a long life… That’s what cancer taught me... when something bad happens, remember it’s the creator trying to tell you something, trying to teach you something.”

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