The Healing Power of Humor
Advocacy Is breast cancer a laughing matter? One woman shares why she couldn’t help but laugh at the unexpected, bizarre and hilarious experiences she had through a mastectomy, chemotherapy and reconstruction surgery.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2009, my first instinct was humor. In fact, the way I told most people that I had cancer was “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is I have breast cancer. The good news is I’m seeing a hot plastic surgeon who keeps asking me to take my shirt off!” When people asked what they could do to help, I said “well, at a time like this, an expensive gift would really be lovely.” I’m pretty sure I pioneered the concept of a breast cancer registry at Tiffany's.
Hearing a doctor say “you have cancer” is terrifying, but to me the worst thing that could happen would have been to lose my sense of humor. I knew I had to laugh, and equally important, I wanted to comfort and reassure those around me.
A stand-up approach
My sense of humor pervaded all aspects of my treatment and recovery, including choosing health practitioners who were not only outstanding providers, but also understood my quirky personality. Cancer is a long road, and it was important to me to have great traveling companions.
"It’s not that I don’t understand the gravity of this disease; I just think humor helps us endure circumstances that are out of our control."
My cancer adventure lasted for 15 months and included seven surgeries, four rounds of chemo, and countless bizarre complications. I recounted my experience on a blog where I developed a following of loyal readers, and while I was brutally honest about what was happening to me I also kept my spirits up by injecting humor as often as possible. For example, losing my hair was a real low point for me; a very tangible and visible aspect of my cancer treatment. I allowed myself a minor meltdown but then had no choice but to get my act together and move forward.
Hitting the runway
So I posted a dozen pictures of me trying on all kinds of wigs and hats and held a “Best and Worst New Look” contest. Feeling inspired, I followed that up with a “Best Choice of Attire for Chemo” poll. And at one point, determined to add a bit of style and panache to standard hospital gowns, I brought a pair of high heels, some sparkly jewelry and bright red lipstick with me to the hospital. The nurses busted me, but not before I snapped some great pictures to post online.
The bottom line is that my cancer adventure would have been unbearable had it not been for my ability to laugh. It also gave my family and friends permission to lighten up; to smile and laugh and feel comfortable talking to me about my diagnosis. My tone set the parameters for what was acceptable. Even better, I started looking for the humor in every situation, certain that I could make something funny of each incident.
The bottom line
It’s not that I don’t understand the gravity of this disease; that it can cut lives short and rob families and friends of their loved one. I just think humor helps us endure circumstances that are out of our control. I believe that it’s not the things that happen to us that define who we are; we are defined by how we respond to those things.
I am convinced that humor helped me recover from cancer, and heal both physically and emotionally. And I know that when we can laugh in the face of adversity, we are saying “Come on. Give me everything you’ve got. I can take it.” When we laugh, we win.