Laughing at Cancer

March 9, 2013

Cancer, Health, Humor


“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” said the surgeon. Without waiting for a reply he blurted out “You do have cancer”, but he followed it up quickly with the ‘good’ news, that “if you are going to have cancer this is one of the best kinds to have, a rare but slow growing salivary gland cancer”. For someone who had seldom been sick longer than a day the news was devastating. However, there was more. Following an operation to remove the tumor, the left side of my face was found to be completely paralyzed, giving me a sinister and grotesque appearance. The surgeon had either made a mistake, damaging the facial nerve and permanently paralyzing one half of my face, or sensation would gradually return after about six weeks. Only time would tell. My world was rapidly falling apart.

Following a cancer diagnosis most people are overwhelmed with the amount of advice and information they receive. Rationalists will be surprised to learn that, given information overload, faith, religious or otherwise, often plays a more important role than cool analytical reason. Having put my faith in both surgeon and radiologist, I proceeded to work on myself regarding the best piece of advice I received during this time, which happened to be from my dentist (bless you Dr. Albers). The good doctor had the chutzpah to tell a newly diagnosed cancer patient to keep a sense of humor about the situation. I have passed on this strange and perplexing advice to a number of other cancer patients over the years.

Dr. Albers did not elaborate on his advice but I eventually figured it out to my satisfaction. To laugh at oneself requires a certain shift of consciousness, a sense of detachment, an ability to look down and observe oneself and the human condition, warts and all. The key here is the word ‘detachment’. Cancer is frightening and emotionally overwhelming, but to laugh at oneself requires one to step out of the swirling pool of emotions, step back from the fear and calmly observe the situation with all its inherent absurdity.

For example, I remember going into a local hardware store to ask, with the twisted, functioning half of my mouth, for some mouse poison. The sales assistant said that they had it in stock, but wanted me to consider another method such as a mousetrap, as she was concerned about accidentally poisoning dogs or cats that might eat the mouse and suffer the effects of the poison. I was tired and irritable from undergoing daily radiation treatment and just wanted to get rid of the mouse I had seen in the garage that morning. I insisted she sell me the mouse poison but she just glared at me and said I must be unfeeling and inhumane. I glared back at her and almost shouted for her to sell me the poison and then, suddenly, I saw the situation through her eyes – a grotesque, unblinking, maniacal figure insisting on buying poison to murder some poor defenseless creatures and goodness knows what else besides. I immediately burst out laughing while the sales assistant rushed to get the poison.

Truly, some situations are so bizarre and/or so bad that humor is the only rational response. If you don’t laugh at yourself you will likely drown in your own sorrows. Prior to writing this post I went online to see if anyone else was laughing at cancer. As you can imagine I was not overwhelmed with examples, but I’m certainly not alone. After being diagnosed with breast cancer the day before her dog died and a few days before her birthday, Ira Rosenberg learnt that she didn’t have enough body fat for breast reconstruction surgery. She immediately saw the humor of the situation and joked “For the first time in my life I didn’t have enough fat — there’s no justice in life!”

Suffice it to say that my experience with cancer occurred many years ago and I subsequently made a complete recovery, face and all. I am fully aware that most cancer patients are not so lucky. The reason for writing this post is not to make light of this dreadful disease, but rather to suggest another tool for managing the emotional maelstrom that inevitably accompanies it.


“The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven.” Mark Twain

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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40 Comments on “Laughing at Cancer”

  1. Anne Says:

    This is a delightful post. Thank you! I hope many people who are living with cancers and other disabling conditions will read this.


  2. becwillmylife Says:

    Such an insightful post. Thanks for sharing. Have you read “Healthy Pleasures” by Robert Ornstein, Ph.D. & David Sobel, M.D.? It’s older…copyrighted in the late ’80’s but speaks to research based medical benefits of pleasure. It’s a good read.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. I just checked out the Ornstein book on Amazon and it does seem interesting. Laughter definitely seems to have some health inducing effects although in the post I deliberately ignored this aspect of humor in favor of writing about how it can be used to change one’s perspective on life or a specific situation.


  3. chr1 Says:

    Malcolm, you scared me there for a moment. Glad you recovered, and managed to have a laugh along the way. I’m a little suspicious of people who never laugh.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Chris, sorry to get you worried. I think all of us share this suspicion of humorless people to one degree or another. It’s difficult to like someone who takes themself so seriously that they have a problem seeing themself as others might see them.


  4. Rose Alcantara Says:

    Words to live by. Very nice Malcolm.



  5. janeanddavid Says:

    Great post, Malcolm. As a cancer survivor, I am torn about whether I like the comment “if you have to have cancer, this is a good kind to have”. The doc may be trying to soft-pedal the diagnosis, but no cancer survivor feels that their cancer is a ‘good’ one in any way. Well, except for the insights to life that you get and the great new friends!


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I understand your reservation but it can’t be an easy thing to have to tell patients they have cancer. It would be interesting to learn from other patients exactly how they were notified of their diagnosis. I assume (perhaps wrongly) that this subject is covered in medical school.


    • shikhachhabra Says:

      I was diagnosed with a rare but curable cancer too, and I do feel that mine is a ‘good one to have’ given it could’ve been so much worse.


  6. cattalespress Says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. You offer so much hope and inspiration to so many.


  7. The Savvy Senorita Says:

    Hi Malcolm, as always a wonderful post. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences in this poignant post.

    Cancer is a terrible disease, one that frightens me actually. I know a person who is suffering at the moment with skin cancer, and the associated treatments. He is working too much in my eyes though, not resting enough. Anyway, he thinks this is his best option.

    I have heard of people who have come through cancer and they have said it can be related to ‘mind over matter’ this helped them – the positivity. Being able to laugh made a difference to them, their health and how they viewed their illness and I believe it is true. Something about humour deflects the ‘badness’ life can throw at us.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thanks Bex. I think there are two different issues here that we tend to conflate. Many people believe that laughter is beneficial in a physiological sense (greater oxygen intake, generation of mood changing chemicals etc). However, even if this turns out not to be the case laughter can be beneficial in the cognitive sense that it helps keep us on a level keel during times of emotional turbulence. I was addressing the latter issue in the post although I recognize that being in control of one’s emotions might also be a prerequisite for healing in ways that we are not even aware of.


      • The Savvy Senorita Says:

        Hi Malcolm,
        OK, I see the issue you were focussing on. I agree that laughter is certainly beneficial to add to the emotional mix – it can redress a balance somewhere deep inside us all.


  8. Jon Sharp Says:

    Good for you Malcolm. I hope I might have the same attitude in a similar situation.


  9. NicoLite Великий Says:

    It’s good advice for any kind of life-changing disease


  10. shikhachhabra Says:

    I found your blog because you liked a post on mine and I was so pleased to see this. I’m presently undergoing cancer treatment myself, and a sense of humour is crucial for maintaining perspective. Thank you for sharing this!


  11. bravesmartbold Says:

    I’m struggling with several problems at the same time. It’s great to know others are laughing through problems too. I’m also so happy you recovered and that I get to read about it here.


  12. Tahira Says:

    Wonderfully written! ” To laugh at oneself requires a certain shift of consciousness, a sense of detachment, an ability to look down and observe oneself and the human condition, warts and all.” This is such perfect advice. And not just for someone with cancer – Great advice for everyday life. Thanks for sharing.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. Your comment made me think about the evolutionary benefit of humor. Maybe it evolved to help us cope with the really difficult challenges of everyday life? Those people that could laugh at themselves stood a better chance of surviving than those who did not 🙂


      • Tahira Says:

        My personal growth & experiences have proved your theory 100% correct. There is a quote by Albert Einstein that I subscribe to: “I am content in my later years. I have kept my good humor and take neither myself nor the next person seriously.”


  13. Dina Says:

    Thanks for sharing this story, absolutely delightful reading, Malcolm.


  14. Hanne T. Fisker Says:

    Powerful post. I think you just described a key element to life and us in it, never to take ourselves too serious, life is too important for that (inspired by Oscar Wilde) It takes a lot of inward honesty to be able to laugh about oneself and an impossible life-situation and you are right, it is an incredible strong medicine…


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Hanne, thank you. I just want to say that I really appreciate all the wisdom and unusual perspectives that you are bringing to these conversations.


      • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

        Thank you much for your kind words Malcolm. Your writing is honest, your knowledge is rich, your choice of topics inspiring and your way of sharing perspectives is uplifting. I truly enjoy the respectful exchange that is challenging me to sense as deep and honest as I possible can into life and all the variety of perspectives and letting the ‘answers’ find their way by listening with an open mind (as open as this one can be) to what brings aliveness and resonates the strongest…. so you see, it’s all your fault! 😉


  15. thelittlemaker Says:

    Thank you so much for writing this post. I too was recently diagnosed with the much dreaded cancer and had to have mastectomy (sadly unlike the lady you mention I DO have enough body fat!!!) and like you I believe that humour is a huge help on the road to recovery. I love to laugh and reading this has set me up for the day. Bless you x


  16. rung2diotimasladder Says:

    I was trying to post something on your “About” page, but noticed that comments are disabled there. Well, first, here was I was going to say there:

    I’ve nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. No need to participate if you don’t feel like it, but I wanted to show my appreciation. You can check it out here:

    But then this post caught my eye. You have a really good attitude. The story about the rat poison was hilarious.

    I am so glad that you have made a complete recovery. I know it can be quite scary. My husband had prostate cancer and we had some hard times, but now he’s doing fine. It’s all that uncertainty…it’s horrible and draining unless you do as you did, laugh at it.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. I’m very grateful for your comment about the ‘About’ page as I was unaware that the settings had somehow changed. I have taken care of this but unfortunately I seem to have lost all the old comments that I used to have on that page 😦 I also really appreciate you nominating me for the Versatile Blogger Award but I choose not to accept these awards. I’m glad you enjoyed the ‘Laughing at Cancer’ post. As you say, it’s “horrible and draining” and each of us has to find our own way to handle the ordeal.


      • rung2diotimasladder Says:

        Sorry you lost your comments there! So annoying. And on the subject of the award, I anticipated a lot of people would not want to participate. It’s kind of like a chain letter and it can be time-consuming. I just felt it was perfect for my mood and I could let people know I appreciate their blogs and comments.


  17. jhanajian Says:

    Great post, Malcolm. And that quote by Mark Twain at the end just cinches it — “no humor in heaven.” Well said! Kahlil Gibran says much the same thing in On Joy and Sorrow: “the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.” Thanks again, Malcolm for sharing this personal part of yourself with us.


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