Why Not Laugh?


by Scott Burton

Having faced stage IV osteo sarcoma, chemotherapy and multiple limb-saving surgeries, I have seen the profound imprint -- both good and bad -- that cancer leaves on every person touched by it. Knowing the struggle, I have something to say to each of us affected. And, in speaking with fellow survivors and oncology professionals coast to coast, I often hear the same sentiments that reinforce this opinion. Yes, cancer is one of the greatest struggles you'll ever have. Yes, it is a life and death issue. And, yes, those you love will suffer too. But, in the midst of this life-defining battle, why not allow for laughter?

It's important to remember that there is not and never will be anything funny about cancer -- which is why some feel they can't, or shouldn't, laugh. But what is funny -- is life. It always has been. From your first greeting in the world being a smack on the bottom to the fact that time will eventually turn you into your parents, life is a wondrous comedy. In dealing with cancer, life is different, but not any less present. So, just as there was humor in life before cancer, there can be humor in life during cancer.

I remember the first time I made someone laugh during my one year battle. My brother was visiting me in the hospital after an operation and I was explaining that, before the operation, I'd had my very first prostate exam. He could see how shaken I was when I told him. "I had my first prostate exam. Wow!" As he smiled sympathetically I stumbled on, "I mean, that was a new experience. I'd heard... I mean, I knew what it was but... wow. I'd never done..." After another pause, I turned to him and, with genuine concern, said, "Are they supposed to use a puppet?" The laughter from my brother was so real, so genuine and free, it changed the face of all our conversations throughout the rest of my operations and chemo.

With one fell swoop, that hearty, joyous laughter cut through the tension of being in the hospital, of facing cancer, of my brother's discomfort watching me go through the ordeal. With that laughter, I found a way to communicate that would do both, keep fears at bay and draw others closer.

So it is true, cancer is no laughing matter but, whether it is cancer or any other trial in life, laughing does matter.

In assessing all the ways I could've responded to my diagnosis -- my surgeries, my seven months of chemo -- laughter was the only one that made sense. I could have raged. I could have kept to myself and stewed. I could have felt slighted, cheated or abused by life. I could have felt a world of different things from depression to cynicism. But laughter was the only response that, as I used it, helped me grow. And there was a byproduct to sharing laughter. While loosening up my body, easing fears of others and building lines of communication, it provided the most powerful and needful tool in fighting any trial in life -- a positive attitude.

The other reactions; anger, depression, suppression, denial, took a little piece of me with them. Each made me feel just a little less human. Yet laughter made me more open to ideas, more inviting to others, and even a little stronger inside. It proved to me that, even as my body was devastated and my spirit challenged, I was still a vital human.

It's often hard to understand the healing power of laughter because it doesn't make sense to relate physical and spiritual mending to the same feeling you got when Milton Berle donned a dress. But it's there. Medical scientists have proved the existence of healing endorphins released by laughter but, in plain terms, the magic of laughter is, when you laugh -- if only for that moment -- you love your life. And, when facing tragedy, that is a deep knowledge we all can use.

So I exercised my sense of humor whenever possible. While in pre-op, during one of my nine surgeries, I was propped up atop my gurney with pillows as the staff scurried throughout the room and a young attendant brought me heated blankets and checked to see if there was anything I needed. Even though I was in for surgery, with everyone running about and attending to me while I sat as their audience, I felt as if I were a Roman nobleman at the forum. Embracing the brief moment of regal splendor, I turned to the attendant and, with playful airs, said, "Fetch the oncologist... he amuses me."

I once tried to convince a friend that, along with chemotherapy, radiation therapy or the complimentary humor therapy, there was such a thing as nasal therapy. "What happens is, as you drink a glass of milk, the doctor makes you laugh and the tumor shoots out your nose. They're still testing to see if it works with 2% and skim. They're also having a hard time finding a doctor who can make people laugh."

There are numerous ways to allow for laughter in our lives; rent comedy videos, read the funnies, take the time to remember the laughter in your past. For my money, listening to Carl Reiner's and Mel Brooks' Two Thousand Year Old Man routine is guaranteed laughter. Just getting out and talking freely to others works. You'd be surprised, when you actually converse with and engage people around you, how often laughter is the result.

And this is not meant to say laughter is the only way to embrace our humanity. It is not the only knowledge we have of loving life. Cancer patients shouldn't be thinking up new gags they can do with their bed pans or making crank calls from their rooms. Nobody is calling for a new generation of chronic disease comics. Embracing laughter does not mean non-stop guffaws. There are other ways to stay in touch with our humanity. There are the little things, such as smiling. There is genuine love. There is doing whatever it is you do that makes you feel human: reading, hugging, writing, talking, maybe alligator wrestling, whatever it takes for you. Many times even tears help us feel our true humanity.

We live in a dehumanizing society that is centered on image, demographics, sales and numbers. We seem to be valued only by what we have or how famous we are. Our humanity and love of life has been buried and hidden. Then cancer comes along and tries to take what is left. Through laughter, through loving, through our own passion for living we can take control of our humanity once more. We see that life can be simple. We admit that cancer can be part of life. And we know that laughter and loving our lives always feels good.