Laughter, an Unexpected Part of the Cancer Experience

November 6, 2020
Debbie Legault
Debbie Legault

Mother, grandmother, librarian, military spouse, family life educator, take your pick! Debbie Legault was born in British Columbia, Canada to a former RCAF airman father and a Scottish War Bride mother and has lived in other Canadian provinces, Germany and California. Her latest role is as the author of “Mom...It's Cancer”, the story of supporting her 27-year-old daughter as they experienced breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Cancer is often characterized by agonizing months of treatment and a dismal outlook, but sometimes the lighter side can find its way through.

When I was a full-time caregiver to my daughter when she was going through breast cancer treatment, I outwardly expressed my emotions in a variety of ways. Anger was expressed through cleaning grout with a toothbrush. Despair was expressed through eating my way through bowls and bowls of M&M’s. Fear was expressed through freezing in place and dealt with by forcefully telling my body to keep moving forward. However, the one thing that I expressed more than I ever could have anticipated was laughter, and it was a very weird thing to feel while managing everything my daughter went through to combat the unseen monster attacking her.

The first time it was a surprise.

Something happened and laughter burst out of my body and I put my hand to my mouth in case any more was trying to sneak out. It was as if it was forbidden, finding any kind of mirth in the face of such sadness. In my life laughter has for the most part been an expression of joy, and there was certainly nothing joyful about watching poisons flow into my child’s veins. And yet there I was, sitting in a chair looking over at her after she fell asleep as a side effect of some of the drugs that went into her during treatment, laughing at how funny she looked with a huge set of headphones on her ears and a giant koala bear sleep mask on her face.

There were many other moments like that. When we visited Adrienne’s sister Stephanie, she put Adrienne’s wig on her eighteen-month-old daughter’s head and we all howled with laughter and Adrienne took a picture and posted it on social media with the comment “I think this wig makes me look younger”.When we sat in the oncologist’s office and he dropped one more by-the-way bombshell about potential side effects from the chemotherapy drugs she was on when he walked out of the room I turned to Adrienne and said “You know what, Adrienne? I’m f**king done”. She said “Me, too, Mom let’s go home” and we both burst into hysterical laughter because we knew she’d be doing the treatment anyway.

At one-point, Adrienne’s lips were so swollen from a reaction to something on the mouthpiece used during radiation that she looked like she’d had a bad lip job. When she made the suggestion, they could use a condom with the end cut off to cover the mouthpiece so there would be a barrier between it and her lips, her aunt said hopefully they could make it tropical fruit-flavored. I almost fell out of my chair laughing.

The reaction also left her with burning discomfort in her lips, so at home, we eased it by wrapping an ice pack in a cloth napkin and attaching it to her face with a headband wrapped around her head. This was so both of her hands would be free to play video games. The image made me laugh so hard I could barely breathe. I was only used to my breath being taken away by shock or fear, so that was a nice change.

One of Adrienne’s favorite moments of the whole year was at a cottage trip we took with the entire family. She was sitting in a lawn chair and her niece was sitting beside her in her own little chair that Adrienne had bought her as a gift. Both of them were, at the time, completely bald. The mini-me jokes flowed fast and furious, and there is a picture of the two of them sitting side by side both wearing smiles as bright as the sun.

That picture was taken just six days after Adrienne had finished the punishing; barbaric breast cancer chemotherapy treatment patients affectionately call the Red Devil. The one that has to be slowly infused by an oncology nurse because if it seeps out onto your skin it will burn you. When I look at that picture, I can hear the laughter, the healing, soul-warming laughter that lifted all of us out of the nightmare that was her life right then. It helps me balance the gut-wrenching trauma I still experience when I think back to those days of her laying her bald head on my lap as I gently stroked her back, grateful beyond words that she was finally asleep. For a moment she wouldn’t feel as if she couldn’t do it anymore.

It’s very cliché to say laughter is the best medicine, but in my experience it most definitely was. As unexpected as they were, the moments of joyful expression were what often helped us get through one more second, one more minute, one more hour, one more day. When the dark abyss got a little too deep for me to think we’d ever get out of it laughter would add a layer below my feet that lifted me closer to the light.

I know it won’t be right for everyone but escaping into a television world of silliness was one of the most powerful tools in my arsenal and it was right there whenever we needed it.I suggest giving it a try. In the truest sense of the word, you have nothing to lose.

That’s what she said.

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