“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