“I could have died laughing.” she said.
“Oh, my God” she added quickly, touching my arm. “I’m so sorry; I shouldn’t have joked about that, the dying, I mean. Oh, God, I’m so sorry.”
As I’m sure other cancer patients well know, especially those who, like me, are terminal, cancer can trigger some awkward or funny moments. One acquaintance approached me in a parking lot with:
“Kathy, what a surprise! You know my best friend just died of cancer and, well, I hadn’t seen you for a while so I’ve kind of wondered, you know …”
“Yeah,” I said, “I know. I’m sorry about your friend.”
“Oh, it was so sad, you know; life has been tough.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Have you been sick?”
“No, no, no, nothing like that, but you know, just keeping up is hard sometimes. But hey, it was good to see still kicking and, you look good, I mean considering, you know … Now you take care and maybe I’ll see you again.”
Tell me that isn’t funny. Or how about the colleague of mine who stopped to tell me how good I looked for someone “who is terminal and on some kind of chemo,” telling me that she might talk to her doctor about starting chemo herself.
As for looking good, I told her that if they could make me look good in a coffin, I would be damned if I’d be upright, walking around, looking half-dead and as for her on chemo, I suggested she wait and get to it the way the rest of us did, the cancer route. “Oh, no!” she said. “I don’t want cancer, but you look good.”
A sense of humor, perhaps the most important asset a cancer patient can have, is also the very thing most immediately and consistently discarded with a cancer diagnosis. That is especially unfortunate because a sense of humor is a balm that makes us more roadworthy for any journey, including cancer. It is also “an affirmation of dignity, a declaration of superiority to all that befalls [us]” and, the icing on that cake is that it has been shown to improve cancer treatment outcomes.
That’s a pretty powerful punch for ferreting out humor where you least expect it, for cultivating joyful appreciation for the absurd as a way to undermine its sharper and more tragic edges.
If we consider a cancer patient’s journey, however, the notion of introducing both humor and an appreciation for it as desirable, might, on the surface, seem insensitive, or even unkind. Every newly diagnosed cancer patient, regardless of the kind of cancer or the staging of the disease, experiences a first devastating metastasis before they are even aware of its meaning. It is a metaphorical metastasis that invades the mind and spirit, severing cancer patients from themselves, from their before, from their families, their friends, their colleagues. It’s not a parallel universe; it’s not a foreign country; it’s a destabilizing free fall through an invisible portal where you emerge clutching the tattered, shredded cloth of a disappearing life, treading on mole-infested terrain, spongy, upending your entire sense of balance, triggering agonizing farewells to yesterday’s dreams, your child’s birthday party, next weekend’s wine tasting with friends or a beer bash at Barney’s.
Where’s the humor now? Tell a joke? I don’t think so, but ...
Now is the precise moment in which a cancer patient needs grounding, needs some sense of self that matters, that is more than the invading cancer, a self that is not just another “cancered” widget, stepping onto a doomed assembly line of horrors, passing the knowing smiles of medical professionals and support staff who have seen thousands of “you” before you. It is at precisely this moment that the cancer patient needs a loving dope slap, a “Yes, this is really happening,” needs someone with a foot firmly planted on the safe side of that portal; someone in touch with a rich and diverse emotional life; someone to help the patient (yes, the “patient” because you’ve lost your neutral person status) secure a tether to that abruptly fading old world self; someone who knows that this newly minted cancer patient, if allowed to stay within the confines of a victim/warrior terminology and frame of mind, will likely never find or enjoy a quality of life that admits wonder, gaiety, an easy two-step response to a lively beat, the saving grace of a senses of humor, the undeniable joy of shedding the overbearing cancer victim’s heavy cloak for a cancer activist’s buoyant frock or the spontaneous response of “Great, thanks for asking.” to the question, “How are you?” despite cancer’s real estate grab for parts of your body bag because you are so much more than the cancer.
Who are these someones? Who are the people ideally suited, grounded, familiar with the before and after terrain of the cancer patient’s peculiar “microbiome” and how do they initiate that transformative process from victim to activist, from “woe is me” to living as fully and as richly as possible with curiosity and humor?
The answers to those questions are the subject of my next article.
Kathy Chonez, of Murphysboro, was diagnosed with lung cancer metastases to the bone marrow in 2012 and was told in 2015 that she had less than two months to live. She’s frequently reminded by doctors that she should’ve been dead a long time ago. She formerly worked as a faculty member at SIU Carbondale in the foreign language department.
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