Breast Cancer Isn't Funny, But Humor Can Heal


Breast cancer is no laughing matter, but being able to find something to laugh about in the midst of the trial can be cathartic.

Breast cancer. What do you think of when you hear or read those words? Do you feel sadness, anger, frustration, fear, worry, dread? Perhaps you felt several of those feelings at the same time because you know breast cancer isn’t something to be taken lightly. It’s a heavy subject. The severity of the disease brings life altering consequences. Breast cancer isn’t always curable. People die. Any way you look at it, cancer isn’t funny—but could it be?

Some might find making light of cancer to be disrespectful or socially unacceptable while others find it a useful coping mechanism. According to an article posted by wellness coach Elizabeth Scott, “Developing a sense of humor about life’s challenges is an effective coping technique that can actually lead to better overall health as well as simple stress management. That’s because, aside from the health benefits of laughter (which are numerous and significant), having a sense of humor about life’s difficulties can provide a way to bond with others, look at things in a different way, normalize your experience and keep things from appearing too overwhelming or scary.”

In an Journal of Clinical Oncology article, we learn how humor is used between doctor and patient especially when related to cancer diagnoses. “As these issues come about quite suddenly and often need to be addressed early in the doctor-patient relationship, it is optimal to have a form of interaction that quickly provides a sense of familiarity, does not offend, and is easily facilitated. Humor can often meet these criteria; it can set the tone for a more relaxed atmosphere and can act as a ‘leveling agent’ between the patient, their family and their oncologist, aiding the formation of a ‘therapeutic alliance’. Secondly, it can also relieve the tension or embarrassment that both patient and doctor experience when undertaking intimate questioning or examination. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it can provide a sense of familiarity and kinship often needed for the prolonged relationship an oncologist will develop with a patient and their family. It lets the patient know that the oncologist exists as a ‘human’ outside the strict confines of a therapeutic relationship.”

Hunter Campbell, M.D., the American doctor whose life inspired the 1998 movie “Patch Adams,” and founder of the Gesundheit Institute uses laughter therapy on a daily basis. He’s found that laughter helps his patients forget about their illnesses and heal more quickly.

“Tumor humor,” as it’s come to be known on comedy circuits, falls under the category of dark humor. Black comedy or dark humor is defined by Wikipedia as “…a comic style that makes light of subject matter that is generally considered taboo, particularly subjects that are normally considered serious or painful to discuss. Comedians often use it as a tool for exploring vulgar issues, thus provoking discomfort and serious thought as well as amusement in their audience.”

Some comediennes like Tig Notaro and Wanda Sykes have used their experiences with cancer to help others see a lighter side of the disease. By using humor, Notaro and Sykes poke fun at themselves while sharing their experiences with breast cancer. Their comedic performances use humor as a way of twisting the perspective on breast cancer. As they make light of the subject, they are able to disarm the fearful qualities of cancer and bring laughter into the equation. Other comediennes use the subject of breast cancer to form short parodies in their comedy routines. Ellen Degeneres uses her special gift of performing to help viewers find humor in breast cancer-related subjects like mammograms.

It isn’t easy to look at cancer through the lens of humor. When I was first diagnosed with stage 2B invasive ductal carcinoma, I wondered if I would ever laugh again. Over the years, I’ve found my attitude toward breast cancer has changed. I’ve not only found things to laugh about, I’ve started to look for them.

For instance, there was a time not too long ago when I was in the hot tub and one of my prostheses went rogue, floating away in the middle of a group of people. All I could do was make a joke about it, smile, and quickly retrieve it. Or the time my granddaughter asked me if my boobs would ever grow back — what do you do in a case like that? All I could do was laugh and continue our conversation. And then there was the time at the grocery store when one of my lightweight breast forms snuck out of my bra and settled just under my chin. By the time I realized it, a woman on the same aisle looked at me with a sly grin. I’m sure she thought I was stuffing my bra to make myself look more well-endowed. Once again, all I could do was laugh and move on.

Yes, breast cancer is a very serious disease and should never be dismissed as something other than that. But learning to find humor in the midst of breast cancer can be helpful. Sometimes, a good laugh is good medicine. This quote, made by breast cancer survivor and comedienne, Tig Notaro, tickled my funny bone since Ms. Notaro and I share a similar physique:

“Before I had a double mastectomy, I was already pretty flat-chested, and I made so many jokes over the years about how small my chest was that I started to think that maybe my boobs overheard me…and were just like, ‘You know what: We’re sick of this. Let’s kill her.’” -Tig Notaro

Making fun of breast cancer might ruffle a few feathers, but for those who use laughter as a survival tool, it’s pretty easy to get a grasp on the power of a hearty belly laugh. And if you aren’t quite sure whether breast cancer can be funny, take a look at some YouTube videos of the aforementioned comediennes. The humor is dark but it is funny, and humor is healing.

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