Finding Moments of Humor Even When Life Is Rough

Not everyone facing cancer thinks it appropriate or even desirable to laugh in dark moments, but finding slivers of humor in my own cancer experience is what helped me through. Humor relieves stress, helps to connect with others, and builds confidence in making it through tough times. I survived multiple surgeries, months of chemo, radiation, and drugs that for many months made me feel 100 years old. After a couple of years of living in fear, though, it struck me that the worst-case scenarios I’d imagined either weren’t as bad as I’d feared or never happened at all. Yes, I reasoned, cancer may kill me. It could return at any time, but so might death by any other means. That’s hard to wrap your mind around, but how freeing it is to finally and fully accept that we are all mortal. And before we do die, life is surely better when we laugh.

There’s not much to laugh about when it comes to having cancer. It’s a terrible, frightening disease that comes at you like a freight train and can take over your life — or at the least, dramatically alter your routines, upend plans, rattle relationships, impact finances, and shatter your sense of security and equanimity about the world. What’s so funny about any of that? Nothing. This is why, when I went through two long bouts of breast cancer treatment, thirteen years apart, I learned to look for little moments of light and laughter whenever, through grace, they might appear.

“Caution! Radiation Danger!” reads the sign on the radiation room door, because…you might get cancer while being treated for cancer? I went through that door thirty-three times to get my daily radiation zaps, and it never failed to make me smile.  Humor was also a bonding experience and tension reliever with friends and other patients. Shopping for wigs - for myself and with patients I later mentored - provided many moments of laughter as we discovered the many styles and colors of synthetic tresses that look great on a styrofoam head and absolutely ridiculous on us. Yes, it sucks to go bald, but there is fun to be had in headgear, and sharing it with others is a precious bonding experience. Laughter, when genuine, truly lightens the load. If you look for them, there are plenty of absurdly funny moments to be shared, even during treatment.

Finding humor and connection in the dark shadow of cancer was one way of helping me through; another was creativity.  I began writing my first novel — initially titled “The Oakland Mets” after a dark joke shared by its characters — not long after my first bout of cancer treatment. I took those worst-case fears and addressed them with characters who meet in a support group for metastatic cancer patients. The group gathers in a Nordstrom department store employee training room, with an in-over-her-head facilitator and flax bars and green tea as snacks. The gathering is as dreadful as it sounds, but the three - two middle-aged women and a gay man — hit it off with each other, becoming unexpected friends, They decide to ditch the group and go off on their own, with the aim of simply enjoying life — outdoors, at jazz clubs, on excursions - with others who get what they’re going through, without having to talk about cancer all the time. What they wind up doing is helping each other resolve family issues and find peace and acceptance as they near the end of their lives. There are plenty of absurdly funny moments in the book, but mostly it’s about a deep and tender friendship between people bonded initially by their diagnoses. I wound up titling it Almost Family, because that’s what these characters become. 

Anyone who has had cancer knows that cancer is not the only thing that goes on while you’re in its throes. You still have concerns about work, relationships, that guy who cut you off in traffic, bills, pets, and acquaintances who suddenly look at you as if at any moment you might keel over and die. That’s because life goes on as long as we are alive. Sometimes it is hilarious, sometimes touching and sometimes it breaks your heart. But even when life is dark, it presents us with moments that can make us laugh. I try to be open to those moments, and grateful when they appear.  Finding humor in tiny spaces helps me feel stronger, less anxious, and more alive — all things that, if not inherently healing, help me through when times are tough.

Being open to dark humor is different, though, from forced laughter, nervous joking, or the highly annoying imperative from well-meaning strangers, to “smile!”  I’m the last person you’ll hear saying that forcing a smile or laughter is an effective way to “fight” cancer. On days when my skin was gray, my wig askew, and I barely had the strength to buy a cup of coffee, a stranger’s urging me to “smile! You’ll feel better!” made me want to snap, “You smile!”  I never did, but it did occur to me that people say that when your misery is making them uncomfortable, you’re under no obligation to comply. Eventually, though, memories of such moments might make you laugh at yourself and have compassion for that clueless bystander. If that happens, by all means, laugh out loud.

The characters in my novel face such moments, and the full range of emotions and deep discussions as they grow in friendship. I’m thrilled when people tell me they have both laughed and cried while reading Almost Family. My hope is they also became less fearful of relating to people with cancer or, if they’ve experienced cancer themselves, that they saw their own lives reflected in some way, and feel understood.


Photo courtesy of author.