Moments of Humor During Sadness

by Olivia ClarkeAugust 19, 2019View more posts from Olivia Clarke

I’m sitting in my oncologist’s waiting room because I pulled the short end of the stick and have a noon appointment.

For you cancer pros reading this you know that you must have either the first or the last appointment of the day and even that last appointment is chancy. What is supposed to be a noon appointment has the chance of being a 2 or 3 p.m. check-up if your doctor gets behind.

I’m sitting there and trying to keep up on my work email — clearly the youngest person waiting. I’m like a walking statistic — 1 in 4 cancer patients in a room will be under age 40. (I made that stat up but you get the visual.) An elderly woman walks up to ask how long the wait will be for her appointment and the man at the front desk says it will be a two- to three-hour wait. She shrugs her shoulders and says that’s fine because she’s got nowhere else to be. Looking around the waiting room I realize that everyone else is very chill about the long-ass wait.

When I witness this, knowing her appointment is before mine, I have two distinct emotions — anger and laughter. At that point I’m not sure which one I will lean into. The anger comes from knowing that this puts my workday very much behind. Laughter because how is this wait even an option and why is no else upset about this situation? In any other profession could you imagine if the deadline was one time and actually it is two hours later? If you drove a train, what if that was your mentality — mass chaos would ensue? Now this is not meant to come down on the medical profession. I tell this story because this is when I stopped and looked outside my situation and saw the weird humor permeating the room. I wondered if other cancer patients experience these strange funny moments.

Was I alone or were others secretly laughing during certain moments of their serious cancer situation?

Is it possible to laugh and still take your disease seriously?

Truth be told I have always marched to my own drummer. But I kind of hoped that there were other unique snowflakes in the world who laughed during the strangest moments in their cancer journeys.

And that is how and why I started Humor Beats Cancer as a place and now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit where those who face cancer in their 20s, 30s and 40s share humorous stories from their journeys. My group of fellow weirdos are all over the world and they laugh as their hair is being shaved off, as they accidentally pee on the floor when they can’t get unhooked from their medical beds, as they make jokes about having one less ball, as they hear acquaintances say the craziest stuff to them about cancer.

I wanted Humor Beats Cancer to be a place where people could step away from the seriousness of cancer and be reminded that they are still alive and not just avoiding death — a place that made them happy, even if just for a moment. Laughing at the length of my wait didn’t change the situation but it provided some needed levity so that I didn’t get in a fight with the front desk.

The bloggers on my site teach me amazing lessons about life and the power of humor as a tool to cope. Those lessons include:

  • Who you have in your corner when faced with cancer can be so vital. You need people who can listen as the doctor explains your prognosis and next steps, but you also need people who will celebrate your breast being removed with a pre-party; who will go shopping with you to try on bright-colored wigs; who will not only hold you when your hair gets shaved off but also give you a Mohawk and take many Instagram photos; who do not make you feel bad or judge you about laughing in-between the tears.
  • Doctors can be funny — they’re people too. We often look at our doctors as these crypt masters who share the secrets of this dark disease — opening the cave and inviting us into a dark, mysterious new world. But they also sometimes have the best humor. For me, my recent visit to my oncologist included us laughing about how easy it was for me to take my shirt off regardless of the type of appointment I was having because of how much I’ve done it during my breast cancer journey. I told her I thought about just taking it off before she got in so we could speed the appointment along. But then I thought that would be weird for her to walk into that scenario. She laughed weird, yes, but not for me. LOL. The point is that they sometimes bring levity to these tough conversations and that helps just as much as the drugs they prescribe.
  • Losing our hair is often the most feared part, but also ripe with comedy relief. People are way more creative than I ever was with the process of cutting off your hair when chemo begins affecting it. One of my favorite blog stories involves hair all over a person’s bathroom walls because of some ill-timed decisions. Another one involves a wig not making it in time for the first day of work as a bald woman and how she solved that problem. Some of our most painful experiences call on us to dig deep for the positivity and joy to move forward.
  • The topics that would make a 5-year-old boy or girl laugh still make us laugh in our adult years. Wigs on backwards, being called a pirate, bladder accidents, farting — you get the picture. The child inside our hearts still exists and sometimes there is nothing funnier than a fart joke or gassing as my 4-year-old nephew would say.

In no way am I advocating for minimizing cancer or the toughness of this disease. In my mind, laughter and humor are tools we can use to cope with this disease. They remind us that cancer cannot take our spirit away with our hair and appetite. Humor helps us move forward and helps us get up in the morning when all we want to do is stay in bed and cry.

Chicago resident Olivia Clarke was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and started in 2017 Humor Beats Cancer, a 501(c)(3) global nonprofit organization geared to those who face cancer in their 20s, 30s and 40s. It shares humorous stories from this group’s cancer journeys and sends care packages to those going through cancer treatment. Visit www.humorbeatscancer.com, @humorbeatscancer (Facebook and Instagram) and @humorbeatcancer (Twitter).

:-)