Most of us would agree that cancer is not a laughing matter. It’s not funny in the least. In fact, it’s the opposite of funny.
But our ancestors understood that laughter is good for both soul and body. The Book of Proverbs references the healing power of humor. Ancient Greek physicians prescribed visits to comedians for their patients. Clowns were high-ranking members of many Native American tribes. And more recently, Tania Katan, in her book My One-Night Stand With Cancer, describes how humor helped her defeat breast cancer not once, but twice.
Tania was as terrified as any cancer patient when she was diagnosed at the age of 20…and then again at age 30. She even contemplated ending her life. But when her mother’s kleptomania of waiting room magazines ramped up to an absurd level, Tania found herself smiling. And when her best friend suggested they mock everything to do with breast cancer instead of shying away from it (they said things like “breast wishes instead of “best wishes” and “that’s the breast idea I’ve heard!”), she found that its terrible power over her was diminished.
She discovered other things about her battle to mock, too. When the woman processing her paperwork for her second mastectomy asked her to mark on a diagram of the human body an “X” over the breast that the surgeon should remove, instead of the “X,” Tania drew a scar on the right breast with an arrow pointing to her left breast with the caption “Repeat Performance.”
I discovered the healing powers of humor at the planning of my father’s funeral, of all places. As my brother and I made the arrangements, we could do little more than nod our heads to the funeral director’s questions, tears streaming down our faces. The last thing we had on our minds was laughter. That is until the director looked at us with the most serious of expressions and said, “I see that your father elected to perform the cremation himself.”
My father was a thrifty man—he abhorred the thought of wasting money, and he would often rely on his own skills to accomplish a task in lieu of hiring someone else. But I was fairly certain that even Sam Jordan had not figured out a way to cremate himself.
I started laughing and I couldn’t stop. The funeral director finally realized what he had said and corrected himself, but I guffawed until tears were streaming down my face, snot was bubbling out of my nose, and I peed my pants. I finally composed myself enough to get through the rest of the planning and the funeral, but not without several more laughing episodes. There were plenty of tears, too, of course; but that image of my father made me laugh repeatedly and got me through the hardest parts.
Life can be hard; sometimes we need to laugh hard at life. Laughter may not be able to solve our problems completely, but it sure does provide some much-needed distance between the situation and our fears about it. Go ahead and give laughter a try; but beware—you might want to keep a change of underwear on hand.