Saturday, June 24, 2006

Cancer Humor

I have a strong interest in folklore and oral histories, and the first two times I was treated for cancer (1992-94), I decided to gather funny stories about being diseased. Below is a reproduction of the (unpublished) article I wrote in 1995:


I have been through sixteen months of chemotherapy, one failed remission and a bone marrow transplant. Currently I enjoy good health. These are the best funny cancer stories I collected firsthand during that time. Yes, even cancer can be funny in its own morbid way. I have gotten permission from all tellers to relate these tales to you.


A woman cancer fighter was in her patient support group and told the story of her doom saying doctor. Several years earlier (she told her group) her original oncologist had given her a diagnosis of six months to live. He advised her to get her affairs in order. She switched doctors. Her friends, angry, said, "You should go back to that doctor and tell him he had no right to make that pronouncement." The woman replied, "I tried, but he died six months after my last visit."
(Story overheard at Midwestern Regional Medical Center.)


A young woman in Kalamazoo who uses humor to cope with a pre-cancerous breast condition and its related operations told me several stories.

She had many humorous names for her breasts, bruised and full of huge black stitches that showed through her clothing: Monsterboobie, Dubious Boobious, and Frankenboobie. She stated she wanted to attach two lug nuts to either side of her breasts to match those on Frankenstein's head.

She told another story about being very upset by her tumors and going to a Seven-Eleven to buy cigarettes. She saw the bowl of pennies so frequently at convenience store counters, with the sign stating: "Got a penny? Leave a penny. Need a penny? Take a penny." Her mind immediately turned those words to: "Got a tumor? Leave a tumor. Need a tumor? Take a tumor." Then she started laughing hysterically and left the store, forgetting her Marlboros.


We've all had good and bad doctors. The doctor fared badly in another tale, told by the young woman above. "Lisa" was having her stitches taken out after yet another breast operation. She was on the examination table, the nurse holding her firmly to it. The male doctor snipped off the end of her stitches (which were both external and internal) and held the catcut in a clamp. Then he literally started walking backwards across the room, pulling the stitches out. Lisa, in terrible pain, watched her breasts flip-flopping back and forth and felt like her ribs were coming undone.

The doctor said (and she imitated his paternal accented voice), "What you are feeling is a slight tugging sensation." By her report, when he drove his car past her on another day, she "gave him the finger and tried to run him off the road."


Much of the cancer humor I've found revolves around hair loss, common in both chemotherapy and radiation. Charlie Burke, one of the nurses in my bone marrow unit, told me of the patient who "had a bee--no a hornet tattooed to his head. He said it helped him fight the cancer better."

A month after I was married, I had a wedding reception in my hometown. The hair I'd had for my wedding was gone before the party, and I'd camouflaged my skull with a silk scarf and straw hat. Stating the obvious, I cheerfully went around telling relatives I was bald. It was an ice breaker. Family friend Carol Knowlton suggested I wear "one of those frilly baby hairbands they put on bald infants," and went on to say how silly they looked on her granddaughter.

Laura Robinson told the story of her friend, Michelle, who was fighting Hodgkin's disease. Both young women worked as waitresses at an Italian restaurant, and Michelle had lost her hair to chemotherapy. One day for fun, Michelle wore an obnoxious wig to work--it was huge, high, curly and blonde, and made her look, "like Miss Piggy, or like a lion from the front." The customers pretended nothing was unusual because they did not know how to react.


When my hair abandoned me the second time, I gathered it up from the bottom of the shower and saved it in a zip-closed bag. It had returned so curly and pretty. My husband found it disturbing to see that bag of disembodied hair sitting on the dresser. After the fall, there were two grotesque clumps and a Mohawk strip left on my head that had somehow withstood chemotherapy. Deciding I'd rather be entirely bald than look at these tufts, I went to the barber. I told him, "This is the first time I've been in to a barber shop." He replied, "It's not like going to the moon," then charged me full-price to shave off the remnants of my hair.


Last year my husband called me his cue ball, his bald egg, his stub head and his pearl. When my hair grew long enough to not be stubbly, he joked that his stub head had gone away to join a colony of stub heads and that I was an imposter. And numerous times, from women especially, I have heard jokes about looking like a bald uncle or saving shampoo.

I'd like to end with a quote from cancer fighter Sharon Pendleton. Not willing to lay in her hospital bed for six days a month during round-the-clock chemotherapy, she walked through the circular halls of Midwestern Regional Medical Center, her rolling I.V. in tow. Another rolling patient commented on Sharon's swift pace. Sharon, without stopping, replied: "If you keep moving, they can't throw dirt on you." Good advice for us all.


If you have a funny cancer story you'd like to share with me, please send it to me via this blog. Don't be shy. Best, Jumblie Girl


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