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Cancer patient turns illness into punchline

NEW YORK - Nicole Osborne has been sitting quietly at the back of Stand Up NY, a well-known comedy club in New York City's Upper West Side. Go there on a Friday night, you might run into some of the most famous stand-up comedians in the world, including Aziz Ansari and Artie Lange.

If she's nervous, there is no sign of it. She has just a few wisps of hair on her head. In her 20s - before the chemotherapy started, Osborne had long, flowing brown hair.

She doesn't seem impressed with any of the comedians performing on stage. Sometimes she lets out a chuckle. Otherwise, her face is expressionless - and sometimes tired.

Eventually, she takes the stage herself. A couple of audience members have raised eyebrows - "What's about to happen?" In the audience, her brother, Michael, is seeing her perform for the first time.

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Nicole Osborne performs at Stand Up NY, Jan. 10, 2015.
CBS News

Osborne addresses the elephant in the room. Actually, it's more accurate to say she spears it.

"This is the last time I go to a Supercuts, you guys," she deadpans.

The crowd groans - and then explodes in laughter. It's the best response a stand-up comedian - one with Stage 4 breast cancer - can ask for. Michael, who is two years older, was crying at the end of the set. Members of her group therapy session that meets every other Friday roar appreciatively.

"I think for someone who doesn't know anything about Stage 4 breast cancer, they should know never to ask someone how long did they gave you," Osborne says. "I feel like that question is completely off the table."

Osborne, 36, is from Moline, Illinois, the home of machinery giant John Deere located about a three-hour drive from Chicago.

After a brief stop in Davenport, Iowa, Osborne followed her brother's footsteps and attended Phillips-Exeter, one of the most elite prep schools in the country. She refers to the experience as a "culture shock," coming from the Midwest to the Northeast.

Osborne never tried anything on stage, except for one summer when she went to a Yale drama program after her junior year in high school. The five-week-program was a sampling of all kinds of performance - improv, dance classes - you name it.

Osborne went to Tulane University in New Orleans which Nicole says is "a city you can fall in love with." She studied business, which was an odd fit for someone who was never all that interested in business. After graduating in 2000, Osborne says that she "basically floated around a bit in Chicago."

Eventually, Osborne found herself working as an assistant dean at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was in March of 2011 that Osborne received the diagnosis that would change her life. She was 32. There was some family history - her grandmother had breast cancer, but it went into remission. Her family was in Texas when they heard the news. Osborne's mother dropped to her knees. Her father threw up.

The survival rate for Stage 4 breast cancer is roughly 1 out of 5, according to the American Cancer Society. After two years of treatment, a doctor gave her seven months to live - that was in 2013.

"Every year, now that I've lived past that, I really want to send her a holiday card that says 'Still here.' But I haven't done that yet," Osborne says.

Osborne quit her job in Chicago and moved to New York for treatment. She resides at the Hope Lodge, housing for cancer patients run by the American Cancer Society. She decided to try a different form of therapy: stand-up comedy.

"Once I had cancer, I kind of felt like no holds barred," Osborne says. "I'm going to do whatever I feel like doing and I wanted to try it so I tried it and I loved it.

The best comedians bridge the gap between their audience and their own life. Osborne's reality is her own mortality and the way other people relate to that.

"I have Stage 4 breast cancer," Osborne tells a captive audience. "And because of that, people don't know how to talk to me. They either think I'm dying right away or they can tell me their deep secrets because I'll die with them."

She never eases up either.

"So every time I go to a Duane Reade to pay for something, at the end of the purchase, they'd be like, 'Do you want to donate to Breast Cancer Awareness month?'" Osborne says, slowly and methodically on stage. "I'd say, 'No, I'm pretty aware.'"

She has performed at some of New York's biggest comedy clubs, including the Magnet Theater, Stand Up NY and the Comedy Cellar. Her jokes mask a certain sadness and shows a fearlessness that is common throughout many comedians. But for her, dying on stage has a different meaning.

"In stand-up, you have a lot of tragedy that can turn into comedy," says Veronica Mosey, a longtime stand-up comedian who is also a mentor to Osborne. "It's a great tool to use, actually, to turn something negative into a positive. But it's really hard to get up on stage when you've just had chemo a week before so you are suffering. Nicole's story is definitely a unique one."

Osborne's material simultaneously punches your gut and then splits your sides.

"So my nurse asks me what my form of birth control is," Osborne says looking out at the sold out Stand Up NY crowd. "And I said, chemo!"

She went there. And she is going to continue going there as long as her body will let her. She has things she wants to accomplish outside of comedy - including finding love, which is why she asks audience members if they'll donate their husbands to her for a night for a tax write-off.

Osborne wants an older man.

"So that I feel young," she says with a tinge of sadness. "I honestly do miss dating or finding someone, like making out with someone. Touching someone. I mean, that's something that is really difficult right now."

Osborne says she would love to hit it big in comedy. If the standing ovation at Stand Up NY is any indication, she just might.