Find Your Funny in Cancer

By Jen Singer
Reviewed by John D. Hainsworth, MD, and Roy S. Weiner, MD

There was nothing funny about it. Every week I’d play singles tennis, and every week it got harder and harder for me to get to the ball. I told my friends and family that it felt as though I was “falling out of shape.” Shortly before my 40th birthday, I quit.

I felt increasingly tired, but then, what mother doesn’t? I was busy juggling my writing career with soccer carpools and trying to hunt down marzipan for the second grade “International Day.” Besides, I was suffering from endometriosis, a pelvic disease that gave me chronic pain. So it’s no wonder I needed two-hour naps every weekend, right?

That spring, I had my ovaries removed to relieve the pain, but the fatigue, breathlessness and soon, chills, continued. If my doctors had looked above my belly button, they’d have found the tumor that was growing rapidly in my chest. It would be months before it was discovered in June 2007; by then it was the size of a softball.

After a misdiagnosis of pneumonia and a trip to the hospital, I finally found an answer for why I felt so rotten: I had Stage III aggressive B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The tumor was wedged in my left lung and pressing against my heart and esophagus, but surgery wasn’t an option. Left untreated, that kind of cancer can kill you within a year—and my oncologist believed I’d had it for at least eight months. I was terrified, angry and sad at the same time. I wondered, Will I get to see my kids [Nicholas, then 10, and Christopher, then 8] grow up?

I underwent six rounds of chemotherapy. When chemotherapy failed to eliminate the entire tumor, I went through five weeks of radiation. On my way home one afternoon, my favorite radio station asked for requests. I called mine in: the ’80s hit “I’m Radioactive.” Despite all I had been through, I managed to use my sense of humor to get through the worst year of my life. Here’s how I found the funny in cancer—and how you can, too:

Make sure everyone knows it’s okay to laugh.
The day I was diagnosed, I dreamed up the Wacky Wig Contest, inviting friends and family to track down the craziest wigs to cover my soon-to-be-bald head. Then I wore each one for photographs and posted them on the Internet so people could vote for the one they liked best.  

When I saw the blue Marge Simpson wig race by my living room window atop my second-grader’s head, I knew that I’d given everyone permission to poke fun at the very thing that had turned our lives upside down. My family and friends could focus on the status of the contest instead of my diagnosis. (The winner: The Heat Miser from The Year Without a Santa Claus.)

The takeaway: You don’t have to run an elaborate contest to make everyone feel more at ease about your situation. A friend of mine had a “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow” party before starting chemotherapy to let everyone know it was okay to laugh despite her cancer diagnosis. 

Find fellow funny patients.
At the same time each weekday, the other radiation oncology patients and I would sit in our hospital gowns, waiting our turns for treatment. So I got to know some of the women there, all of us staring down death. Certainly we needed a laugh, so we all decided to share something funny. One breast cancer patient pulled her hospital gown open to show us a rose tattoo on her chest.

“This used to be on my butt,” she confessed, telling us how her surgeon had used skin from her rear end to reconstruct part of her breast. “We should warn all women in their 20s,” she added, and we roared.

The takeaway: Whether you lean on a support group or chat up other patients during chemo, there’s consolation—and humor—in shared experiences.

Seek humor, even in the horrible.
When my left arm suddenly started swelling during one of my hospital stays, I didn’t panic. Instead, I rang my nurse, held up my swollen arm and then the other one, and said, “Popeye. Olive Oyl. What gives?” He laughed, inspected my arm and concluded that IV fluids were seeping out of my vein. He moved my IV to my other (Olive Oyl) arm, and soon, the swelling disappeared.

The takeaway: It’s easy to slip into panic mode every time you experience a side effect. But if you take a deep breath and look for the silly, it’ll make it easier to face what happens.

Go for the LOL.
If there’s anyone who could use a chuckle, it’s someone who deals with illness and death for a living. So I’d try to make my oncologist laugh. Midway through my chemo, I noticed that my chest had gotten bigger from the abundant chemo fluids piped into the area. I told my doctor, “I’ve been telling everyone that I got breast implants and my hair fell out. It’s a cautionary tale.” He laughed out loud.

The takeaway: Write down a few funny lines you can use on phlebotomists, nurses, radiology techs, etc. Laughter changed how people behaved toward me—replacing pity with a giant grin.  

Set aside the humor when you need to.
Cancer isn’t all laughs, of course. I tried to spend an afternoon keeping my mind off my troubles by watching a cheesy made-for-TV movie, only to discover midway through that the main character gets cancer. First I got mad, and then sad. And then I reached for the tissues for a good long cry.

The takeaway: You don’t have to be the Comedy Central of oncology. It’s okay to cry, scream, punch your pillow, whatever. But you can find a little funny, say, by drawing on your now-missing eyebrows as though you look angry. It’ll make the whole experience easier on you—and the people who love you.

Published March 2014

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