What’s so funny about cancer? A lot, it turns out. At least, more than a few comedians and others have taught us that there’s laughter to be found in the face of cancer. One of the most famous was Gilda Radner, former comedienne of Saturday Night Live fame, diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986 and after a brief period of remission in 1988, dying in 1989. She described her cancer struggle in her memoir, It’s Always Something, a phrase often used by her comedic character, “Roseanne Roseannadanna.” While she wrote honestly of her experience with disease, she peppered her prose with moments of levity and humor, such as descriptions of the joys of farting after dealing with stomach problems or appearing after her chemotherapy and hair loss as someone “resembling a newborn Easter chick.” In an appearance on the Gary Shandling comedy show in 1998, she announced she’d been away because she had cancer. Then she asked her host, “What’d you have?” He smiled and said, “a very bad case of career moves, which…there’s no cure for whatsoever.” After her death, Gilda’s Club, a nonprofit community organization with locations in the US and Canada, was founded in her name. It’s where, in Toronto, I now lead a series of expressive writing programs for people living with cancer.
If you don’t laugh, you’re going to cry your eyes out… It just makes things less awful… As someone who will live with disease for the rest of my life, to never laugh again would be horrific. The jokes make me feel better. To some extent, I get to decide how I’m going to cope and I tell jokes.” — Beth Caldwell, a 38-year-old metastatic breast cancer (MBC) patient and Seattle blogger.
For many of us, when we are going through periods of hardship, laughter helps to lighten the load. As Susan Gubar, writer and cancer survivor explains, “Cracking up may be a better option than breaking down.” In a recent New York Times column, she offers examples like Nina Rigg’s memoir, The Bright Hour, where Riggs commiserates with a friend also dealing with triple negative breast cancer. They imagine starting “Damaged Goods,” a business selling a line of morbid thank-you cards from cancer patients with sentiments such as:
“Thank you for the taco casserole. It worked even better than my stool softeners.”
“Thoughts and prayers are great, but Ativan and pot are better.”
“Thank you for the flowers. I hope they die before I do.”
“All your phone messages about how not knowing exactly what’s going on with me has stressed you out really helped me put things in perspective.”
It doesn’t take much searching, whether online or in bookstores, to find a wealth of cancer cartoonists, comedies, like The Bucket List (2007) or 50/50 (2011), musicals, funny greeting cards and humorous memoirs and guides like “God Said, Ha!,” “Does This Outfit Make Me Look Bald?” , “Cancer Made me a Shallower Person,” and “Cancer on Five Dollars a Day (Chemo Not Included).” Online, the list of funny cancer feeds are endless, from Welcome to the Hotel Melanoma, Cancer Slayer, Dancing the Cancer Down to Dust, or Cancer is not a Gift/Laughing in the face of cancer.
But not everyone finds anything funny about cancer nor humor a useful coping mechanism, according to Dr. Bonnie McGregor, psychologist and public health researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “Not everybody finds it helpful,” she cautions. “It can be hurtful if the timing isn’t right or the situation isn’t right. So you have to be careful with it.” It’s important to remember that humor is not one size fits all, nevertheless as McGregor agrees, there’s plenty of research that supports that overall, laughter can be very good medicine.
If you happened to stand outside the door of conference room where I lead my expressive writing workshops, you’ll often hear laughter. It comes naturally in the group setting. I love to laugh too, raised with the gift of shared laughter thanks to my father. It’s helped me through more than one serious illness, I couldn’t ever help but find humorous moments in each, and a grin or chuckle always helped me feel a little better.
In my writing groups, even though we’re writing about the roller coaster of emotion that comes with a cancer diagnosis, tears occur–but so does laughter. Perhaps that seems counterintuitive, but there’s plenty of evidence confirming that laughter is good medicine. Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins was one of the first to ignite the “laughter therapy” movement when he wrote about the analgesic properties of laughter in his 1979 memoir, Anatomy of an Illness. But well before Cousins’ insights, Mark Twain,whose stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn I eagerly read in my childhood, stated, “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that’s laughter. “The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”
Even as far back as the 13th century, humor had a role in medicine. Surgeons used it to distract patients from the agony of painful medical procedures. They were onto something, since many research studies have since confirmed that the effects of laughter are very good medicine. Laugh, and not only the world laughs with you; laughter causes your body to release endorphins, the feel good hormones that function as the body’s natural painkillers, the same hormones responsible for what’s known as the “runner’s high.” Jeannette Moninger, in a 2015 CureToday article on hospital laughter programs, refers to findings from a 2011 study conducted at the University of Oxford in England that found watching 15 minutes of a comedy program with others increases one’s pain threshold by as much as 10 percent. At the same time, these endorphins decrease levels of cortisol, the hormone that floods the body during periods of chronic stress.Endorphins also decrease the body’s levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with chronic stress that compromises our immune systems, tenses muscles, and elevates blood pressure. Laughter helps to counteract those negative effects and can help cancer patients to talk more openly about their concerns and fears. And it’s fast-acting. A randomized controlled trial of a “therapeutic laughter program” found that breast cancer patients’ anxiety, depression and stress were reduced after just one session of laughing.
Charlie Chaplin once said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.” Whether during treatment for cancer or other serious illness, or simply living a world constantly dominated by hardship and struggle, it’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about. I still giggle when I recall how, after a lengthy and confusing explanation of potential issues with the battery life of my ICD (implanted cardiac device) I mistook the beeping at the end of our clothes’ dryer’s cycle a few days later as the signal my defibrillator had run out of juice. It hadn’t, but I had a good laugh after the initial wave of anxiety. I’m smiling now as I finish this post, hearing that gravelly voice of Louis Armstrong playing in my head, and I’m smiling.
Oh when you smilin’, when you smilin’
The whole world smiles with you
Yes when you laughin’, when you laughin’
Yes the sun come shinin’ through…
- Have you had moments during your cancer treatment that made you laugh–whether in the moment or as you remembered the incident?
- What about other times in your life that something unexpected occurred that, even years later, still makes you chuckle?
- Dig back into your memories—the fun times, times you laughed so hard, tears ran down your cheeks. Take a break from about the pain or anguish that also comes with cancer.
- Write one funny story from your life. If you feel like it, try on a little dose of medicinal humor.