What we’re talking about when we talk about cancer

Photo: Bandit600N (via Creative Commons, some restrictions)

You get to a certain age and the odds are that you have either been treated for cancer yourself or you have one or more friends who have gone through treatment–some successfully, some not.

Twenty years ago, I remember a friend of mine who was being treated for breast cancer (she’s still very much alive and healthy) told me that what got her through was being part of a support group where black humor was the common language. She’d share some of the outrageous jokes the members of the group told each other. The thing about this kind of humor in the face of life and death situations is that it gives people a context to talk about what’s really going on, and even laugh about it.


Photo: Chris Drumm (aka cdrummbks via Creative Commons, some restrictions)


Dana Jennings had a wonderful blog going in the NY Times a few years ago when he was being treated for an aggressive form of prostate cancer. Here’s a sample:

There’s a part of me that would like nothing better than to do cancer stand-up comedy — please cue up a neurotic, put-upon Rodney Dangerfield voice:

So, there I am, half-naked in a dimly-lit room, my feet are bound, and cool female hands are manipulating my body. Yeah, it was great. I was getting prepped for the radiation machine.

Or there was this moment.

You know, a funny thing happened on the way to the cancer institute this morning. Just a quarter-mile from the institute, my wife and I got stuck in traffic behind a truck … a casket truck from the “Batesville Casket Company.” At least it wasn’t following me … with vultures on top.




So three things happened today that got me thinking about coping with cancer: I saw a friend I’ve known for 30 years but hadn’t crossed paths with for about six months. She’s in the midst of a serious fight with cancer. She cried–and laughed–and cried some more. She told me about joking with the physical therapist who said to her, “No one’s ever said this kind of stuff to me before.”

Another friend is taking a partner for some tests. Who knows.

And, this morning, I received a link to this amazing routine from comedian Tig Notaro (who you saw on last year’s “This American Life” live HD broadcast) in which she demonstrates what she’s learned from her experience with breast cancer:

So, what are we talking about when we talk about cancer? Fear. Love. Learning. Fear. Pain. Love. Friends. Laughter. Tears. Love. Pain. Laughter. Love.

If you’re comfortable sharing, weigh in–black humor particularly welcome.

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