Humor, Cancer and Chronic Illness

“I’m not afraid of dying.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  Woody Allen

Pat’s hand gripped mine tightly– her eyes glistened with mischief. “I so look forward to your visits. Everyone else around here is so darned serious!  I wish they’d just lighten up a little.”  I looked around the room and she was right. Her 58-year-old husband and 32-year-old daughter sat on the couch, looking as if a smile would shatter their faces into a million pieces.  “Tell me something funny that happened to you this week,” she continued. “What’s that little boy of yours been up to now?”

Pat was one of several patients that I made home visits to as a nurse, following up after her chemo and radiation for a tumor in her neck and jaw. Physically she was doing fine and her outlook was tremendous. However, her family had an attitude that could sink a battle ship. Even though Pat valued laughter, her family felt her condition was much too serious to permit using humor.

Despite the tremendous advances in cancer treatment, just the word “cancer” evokes a visceral reaction in many people. This includes family, friends, and even some health care providers. One of my patients shared that when she attempted to make a joke about her condition, her husband reprimanded her: “Honey, you shouldn’t be making jokes.  Don’t you realize how serious your condition is?”  This came as no surprise to me. A survey of terminally ill patients showed that over three fourths of them said they wanted more humor but that their family would not joke with them.

Does humor serve a purpose for those with terminal or chronic conditions?  Absolutely. Humor serves many purposes, including relieving anxiety, managing painful feelings, and releasing anger in a socially acceptable way. Humor is a wonderful coping mechanism that can help by reframing or seeing situations in a new light.

Distraction serves as another useful purpose. Sometimes humor helps to divert our attention, instead of focusing on what’s stressful to us at the moment. Humor can often provide relief, whether it’s from an uncomfortable needle stick or the unpleasant side effects of a medication. Scientists are collecting more evidence every day that humor, laughter, and positive emotions have numerous physical benefits, including a decrease in muscle tension and an enhanced immune system.

Where do you find humor? Fortunately it’s all around you. You just have to be looking for it. It’s a mindset, an attitude. It is not the same thing as joke telling, which may come as a relief to some of you. However, if you want to learn to tell jokes, practice telling a joke out loud to yourself seven times before you attempt it with someone else. (Once you blow the punchline, there’s no saving it.)

Better than jokes are personal experiences or embarrassing moments. Few adults have not locked their keys in their cars, or found their zippers unzipped, or discovered a colorful piece of food stuck between their teeth when trying to impress someone. When sharing these universal events, we share our vulnerabilities and our willingness to trust others.  If you can see any humor in it at all, try sharing an embarrassing moment with a friend or family member.

Schedule some time for play daily. Many folks this frivolous and their lowest priority, but research now indicates that those who are too serious to allow time for play wind up seriously ill. Make a “list of things you find pleasurable and fun to do (some of these ideas should be of little or no cost). Then when you are most in need of lightening up but unable to think of anything fun to do, pull out your list and make an agreement to do at least one thing. You will feel better afterwards.

Get out of your rut. Do something out of the ordinary. It can be something as minor as sleeping on the other side of the bed, listening to a different type of music than you’re accustomed to, leaving for work 20 minutes early to take the scenic route, paying for the toll of the guy behind you, sending a cartoon to a coworker, taking a bubble bath by candle light, calling an old friend from high school— just use your imagination!  I once watched in bewilderment as a friend tossed his loose change into the couch in his hotel room.  “What are you doing?!” I exclaimed.  He smiled and said, “Even though I won’t be here to see it, someday someone’s going to have fun discovering the money in this couch.”

No matter what your physical condition, humor can benefit you.  Plan a daily humor break and reap your profits. Make the most of every day– lighten up!


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