When my wife, Cheryl, and I first got the news that my tumor was malignant I don't recall having a reaction of any kind. No sense of utter defeat, or that of a life wasted, or even the determined made-for-TV movie expression of "Cancer has a new enemy and its name is Scott Burton." Actually, in all honesty, I do believe, since my doctors confidently told me there was a 98% chance that this was a benign, Giant Cell tumor, my first thought at being told otherwise was something akin to "Man, I hit the lottery (sort of)." It turned out to be a high grade Osteo Sarcoma that tends to strike in the age group of 16-25 (I was 30 at the time). The treatment required not only the removal of the tumor, which was inside my femur, but part of the bone itself. It was, of course, replaced with a new one (it's a loaner).
I have spent the last eight years of my life as a comic and juggler on the comedy circuit, in clubs and performing at corporate events around the country. It is my job to make people laugh. People of every slice of life, every demographic group, it's my job to take them away from whatever is going on in their lives at the time and make them feel that everything is still okay (at least for the length of my show anyhow). Then, without warning, the tables turned. What's going to happen now? Who's going to entertain me?
As a comic, you learn to survey your situation before you react. You learn that nothing is outrageous -- especially when looked at with a different perspective. And, as you're generally living from job to job with little or no security, you learn to be prepared for, and accept, most any situation. Albeit, cancer is the last thing you expect. Cancer, for a comic, is that one heckler in the back of the room who's been drinking and won't listen to reason, who screws up your timing and simply won't sit down and shut up.
I learned quickly, through other cancer patients who's zest for life seemed heightened with their battles, that looking for humor in our situation is not simply a diversion but, rather, vital to our healing. Perhaps I had a head start due to my profession, but most every survivor I've encountered knows that the humor is there. Humor surrounds us no matter what we are going through. It abounds in life itself! That is a simple fact. It is only our situation that clouds our perception to see the humor. When we see through the situations, that we all battle in everyday life, we see that they, too, are merely a part of living a human life. We can then see the humor even in the most dire circumstances.
It comes down to this: it's just my life. This IS my life, cancer and all. And all life is worthwhile and embraceable. It's just that now it's a little different. The rest of it involves doing what we need to do when a situation comes that requires action. That, I suppose, is the essence of living one day at a time. It's no longer an imaginary life in which you create goals and envision your future. This is accepting what is given to you now and finding your contentment there.
That is not to say we didn't talk about it with deep seriousness. It has to come out somehow, sometime. You just have to make sure it comes out at the right time, say, with your spouse at home as opposed to in line at the bank.
"Yes sir, you need to make a deposit?"
"Please hold me, I think I have a disease!!"
I think what put the news of my cancer into perspective was knowing deep in my heart just how many millions of people struggle with cancer every day. I knew I was certainly not alone in my battle. Not to mention I'm joining quite an esteemed group of true survivors (though I think we'd all be happier if the group's dues weren't so darned steep). I found that we all must, and do, go through tremendous trials in life. Be it cancer or any other horror disease, perhaps some form of abuse, mental or physical, or even dysfunctional families, the trials are countless. We all have a cross to bear. Who am I to not have to deal with these genuine pains of human existence?
Part of it comes down to fears and how we handle them. Fear is a constantfor all of us. Fear is what sets us off in search of humor. I remember walking into the darkened room of my two year old son about a year ago to see him crying and bouncing urgently in his crib. He looked up at me and said, "I'm scared." Thinking I was there to take away all his fears I said, "What are you scared of Matthew?" And with a look of true concern he said, "Rhinos." I picked him up and held him. I smiled and thought, "And I think I have problems." Fear, whether real or imagined, is still fear and humor gives us the tools to combat it.
My greatest fear was the loss of my humanity. In knowing what one has to go through and eventually look like because of chemotherapy, I simply did not want those around me to treat me as if I wasn't human anymore. I was foolishly determined to go through my chemotherapy without a hitch. Contrary to what the nurses told me, I thought, if I tried real hard that I could possibly keep my hair (Will power? Two-sided tape? I don't know what I was thinking).
Fear is okay. Fear is natural. But fear without acceptence hurts. Fear of letting go. Until we do let go, our lives are bound by our desire to control and direct it. Once we do let go and let our life be what it is (even if it's not exactly what we expect) we are more prepared and excited for it.
It took only after my second week in chemo that I realized that I would not only go bald, but that I would be losing every stitch of hair on my body, leg hair, nose hair, eyebrows It hit me after about three months that I no longer qualified as a mammal! That's when I knew that, aside from the very real pains and danger, there was real and genuine humor in my circumstance.
I believe I had exercised my sense of humor from the very beginning, but now I knew that the humor was not just for my benefit but for those around me as well. Those who don't know it's okay to laugh at even the hardships in life. To put them at ease and help them see that, although I look considerably different, I am still the same person I have always been. My mind still knows the truths I've always known. My mouth spoke the same words. My heart bled the same way (Anti-clotting drugs notwithstanding). I could show them that whether this is just a trial in life or I am soon to pass on, I am vital right now.
Cancer, for survivors, has become another step towards knowledge. A true knowledge. Most of us can well acknowledge that we all, someday, must die (except, perhaps, the board of directors of the Cryogenics League of America). Cancer is a crash course in coming to grips with mortality. It may sound odd, but not all people are fortunate enough to have that. And what they don't know is once you see the profound seriousness in life can you truly recognize the deep humor and beauty of it is well.
And once you can laugh with life, your defense meter goes down and your joy meter goes up. That's when you realize your life, regardless of the circumstances or how soon it must end, is a full one.
Every year, the first Sunday of June is celebrated as National Cancer Survivor's day. (Actually, many survivors celebrate everyday, but on the first Sunday of June it's official.) I share my story with you so that you might get involved with the nation's biggest re-birthday party. You can contact your local American Cancer Society chapter as to what programs are available in your community. National Cancer Survivor's day is an opportunity to celebrate and recognize the deep and profound humanity of 10 million cancer survivors. Celebrate with us and laugh with us. To laugh is to live. And, while you're at it, even if you're not a cancer survivor, take some time to recognize and celebrate your own life. You can never be too prepared.