Cancer Humor

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

OCTOBER 20, 2017

We all know the value of laughter to help us get through difficult situations. Remember that laughter is the best medicine. In Cancer World, we laugh a lot, but we all know that it matters who is doing the speaking and to whom the remarks are directed. When non-cancer people say something that is intended to be funny, it too often is heard as hurtful or offensive. When we say the same thing among ourselves, it is hilarious. For example, in my metastatic group, women frequently tell stories of the experience of having sharts (figure it out). These awkward, embarrassing, painful moments can be relived together with shared laughter, but we would never discuss them outside the safe confines of our circle.

I often use humor in my practice, and a gentle remark can be a way to enhance the relationship or to help assess depression. If a comment does not elicit a smile, it may be a signal of trouble. Of course I am really careful about this, as the same remark to the wrong person or in the wrong circumstances would be hurtful. The use of humor turns out to be a tough thing to teach new oncology social workers. My advice to our beginners is always to avoid it. Much better not to take the risk.

From Susan Gubar comes this terrific and funny essay:

Cancer Humor

During periods of hardship, laughter can lighten the load. Cracking up may be a better option than breaking down, or so the recent publications of three young adults with cancer suggest. Somewhat discomfiting, the jests of these authors serve as an antidote and alternative to the despairing negativity or fake positivity that plagues patients like me. Their punch lines zing with pleasure that offsets the pain of their edgy insights.

In Nina Riggs’s memoir “The Bright Hour,” she tells of commiserating with a friend who is also dealing with triple negative breast cancer. They imagine starting a business called Damaged Goods, which would sell a line of morbid thank-you cards:

“Thank you for the taco casserole. It worked even better than my stool softeners.”

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