3 Ways Humor Got Me Through My Cancer Treatment
This was an actual conversation I had with a fellow colorectal cancer survivor that inspired my Cancer Owl comic:
“I do have one last question...you know how an amputee can have a phantom limb? Do...uh...you have a phantom butthole? I asked the surgeon this yesterday, and she exploded into laughter.” Realizing I might have crossed a line, I typed, “Forgive me if that is being too crass.”
“Lmao!!! Yes!” She typed. “Don't worry, nothing is too crass when talking about ass cancer. It's a necessity. Yes I have phantom butthole! It's a strange sensation. I still have a little muscle left so I can partially clench. Also sometimes it feels like I have to poop through my ‘heinous anus’ but ya know it's sewed up…but it’s so not gonna happen!”
Then we talked about how the nickname for her sewn butt is called, ‘Barbie butt’. She concluded by joking, “The one good thing about all this is that I now have been compared to Barbie.”
That conversation was one of my main inspirations behind what you see in Cancer Owl today. Afterwards, I’ve found myself happily in the company of hilariously dark-humored, potty-mouthed cancer patients and survivors.
And I’m convinced humor helped save my life.
So here are 3 ways that humor became an essential part of my cancer treatment.
1. Humor made everything tolerable and hopeful
I probably laughed and joked more at the hospital than anywhere else. No it, wasn’t a front or anxiety. It was like there was a reservoir of joy that I had access to whenever I had an appointment or surgery. I found the whole idea of (ME!) having cancer so damn absurd, that there was nothing left to do but be able to laugh in the face of it.
Being able to laugh a lot during cancer treatments helped me change the way I approached something I couldn’t control. I effectively turned the tables on the terrorist in my body, and now the joke was on him.
When cancer became something I laughed at, rather than something I feared, I took away any power he had over me. I could now take whatever physical thing he threw my way and not let it destroy me as a person.
2. Humor gave folks permission to laugh with me rather than pity me
Nothing can take the energy out of a room quite like announcing that you have cancer. Faces turn from pleasant to those amusement park photoshoots of your folks going downhill on a rollercoaster.
I say this all the time and mean it: most folks are awesome. And because most people are good in nature, they honestly don’t know what to do or say when you get cancer. Let’s be honest: it’s awkward as hell for them.
So I decided to be the first one to crack jokes about myself. And I talked about cancer and death and chemotherapy and ostomy bags and surgeries with such candid humor that it normalized cancer for everyone. I love watching the relief of people around me when they know that they can not only talk about cancer, but poke fun at it too. When cancer’s fear is challenged, it loses much of its power.
3. Humor connected me with others
When I started making Cancer Owl, I was amazed at the amount of letters I received regularly from fans who, in turn, shared their stories with me. Many told me that reading the comic was the first time they laughed in months or years! Doing the comic connected me to dozens of cancer support groups, and I found that joking about even the darkest subjects of our treatments brought us together more. The comic also connected other patients to each other. Because of my comic, some cancer patients came out of hiding and I was able to connect them to support groups.
Humor essentially makes you less of a downer and more desirable to connect with and be around. Being able to laugh at cancer takes the edge off the situation.
Not terribly long ago, I joined a colorectal cancer symposium in Washington DC with hundreds of other patients and survivors. The highlight of my trip was being summoned to a large, hilarious table full of people laughing openly about their buttholes, losing them, and the many misadventures of pooping after colorectal surgery. I mean, this was some horrific shit we were discussing (pun definitely intended), and I felt totally at home.
While certainly not a cure, humor was a secret ingredient in my treatments, which I truly believe helped save my life. Being able to laugh and be joyful through this mess gave me courage, made me more likable (especially with my doctors) and connected me to a plethora of people who’ve walked my road and gave me valuable advice.
Yes, I laugh at cancer. He deserves it. So do I.
Did humor play an important role during your experience with cancer? Share your story in the comments below!
Matthew was working as a therapist when he got news that he had colorectal cancer. Today he is cancer free, and makes cartoons about having cancer by drawing himself as an owl. You can see more of his cartoons at cancerowl.com.