Does Humor Really Make Coping With Cancer Easier?

This morning, I read a powerful piece in the Chicago Tribune Written by Liz Brown, When Funny Business Crosses The Punch Line is a intimate, personal examination of the role humor had in Liz's life as she supported her sister Lynn through her battle with breast cancer.

What's fascinating here is that even though Liz admits she often 'veers toward humor' when coping with life's challenges, there were times - especially after her sister passed away -  where the funny t-shirts and jokes provoked emotions other than amusement.She responded more favorably to some humor than others, and noted that her enjoyment was related in part to who was sharing the humor.  A funny t-shirt worn by a woman who survived breast cancer provoked some smiles; a sign held by a teenaged boy who appeared to be a relatively disinterested party, not so much.

Humor and Healing: Understanding the Power of the Bond

This is a good illustration of how important the bond between individuals becomes when humor is involved.  Liz Brown, it appears, didn't know either the t-shirt wearing woman nor the sign-holding boy, but it was easier for her to appreciate the humor of the person she felt was most similar to herself; someone who shared the solidarity of a shared diagnosis. Bonds are important. If the bond is not there, or perceived to be there, humor can feel crass, demeaning, or insulting - even if that was never the intention of the individual using the humor.

When you're using humor yourself, be aware of the Bond you have (or may appear to have!) with your audience.  Look for points of commonality. Where do you connect? Are they work colleagues? Are they neighbors (close neighbors vs. casual neighbors?) High school pals? Drinking buddies? Do you have a close relationship with the listeners, or are you not so sure of what will make them laugh? In public events, such as breast cancer walks such as Liz Brown writes about, you can not assume that every participant has an experience identical to your own - although there may be similarities.

Humor and Healing: When The Laughter Changes

For me, one of the most powerful aspects of Liz Brown's article is the way her view of humor changed as her sister's condition progressed.  In the beginning, when her sister was freshly diagnosed, humor provided a distraction. This is one of the most powerful ways humor helps us cope with cancer.  Taking our mind off of the overwhelming experience of a breast cancer diagnosis - if only for the moments it takes to snicker at a silly t-shirt - provides respite for overtaxed mental and emotional health resources. This type of break helps bolster the emotional resiliency essential to fighting cancer, while also positively impacting overall physical health.

After Liz's sister passed away, finding the humor wasn't as easy. It is okay if your relationship with humor changes with your experience.  These changes can happen day-to-day: the coffee mug you find hysterical one morning may be the same one that gets flung across the room the next. Cancer follows its own trajectory, and we're along for the ride whether or not we like it. That means there's going to be days when it's easy to laugh and there are going to be days when laughter is impossible. Don't beat yourself up over this! Humor is an intensely personal experience.  There's no right way or wrong way to laugh. If it makes you feel better to laugh, go ahead and laugh.  If it makes you feel worse, skip it!

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