We Need Laughter to Cope
My name is Jen, 30, originally from Australia but now call London my home. I was diagnosed last year with Osteosarcoma in my upper jaw. I had six months of MAP chemotherapy that was an insane 24 hours a day, five days a week job, three weeks on then two weeks off, rinse and repeat. Then I had surgery to remove my upper jaw, a large chunk of the bone in my face and most of my top teeth, fashioning a new jaw out of my shoulder bone, skin, muscle and blood supply. Post surgery I hardly looked like a human due to the swelling, but it's getting better. I can't wait for my dental implants, which I hope will help my face look "normal." I have been blogging about my adventures at thecancerchronicles.blog and can be found on Twitter and Instagram as @thecancerchrons.
Cancer takes away so much of our control by plunging us into a situation where everything changes, not of our own choice, and we cannot influence decisions or outcomes. We're thrust into a world we never wanted to be a part of and are dragged along by our shoe laces. Or maybe by our hair -- perhaps that's why it often falls out. But we can have everything taken away from us except our ability to choose how to react to bad situations: that is the one thing we can control. And as much as possible, we tend to react with pure, unadulterated humour. I think as soon as you're diagnosed with cancer, you're also inadvertently handed a diploma in black comedy and the ability to make jokes that probably seem tasteless to your average non-cancer punter.
When I was first diagnosed, I went home (after a few drinks at the bar immediately post-diagnosis, of course) and my housemate asked, "How did it go?" knowing I was getting my biopsy results. "Turns out it's cancer!!!" I grinned, complete with jazz hands. He laughed awkwardly thinking I was joking. No, not joking, but I also wasn't crying. Let's have a beer.
Humour in the face of cancer is something that non-cancer people struggle to understand. And they often find it hard to take us seriously when we discuss serious things and possibilities in a lighthearted and pragmatic way. It's how we cope, this is how we get through it.
"When I die..." we might say, using humour and nonchalance to deal with the really serious conversations we need to have. The common answer to this is "don't say that" or "don't be silly, you're not going to die, stay positive."
We're told not to talk about such things. But we want to; we need to.
This drives us into the arms of the ever welcoming cancer community, who will say they wish they didn't have to meet you, but since they do, pull up a chair, you're among friends here.
For me personally, a lot of support has come from Twitter and Instagram. Cancer can be very isolating when you're the only "sick" person you know, and sometimes it's important to find a group of people who get it. They are the most supportive group of people, but we also know how to make fun of ourselves and each other as appropriate, bringing us all back down to earth and putting things in perspective.
We laugh at each other for being old ladies as we count out our various pills and vitamins into our nifty day-of-the-week plastic containers to make sure we don't miss any.
I've been spoken to (mocked) sternly when I accidentally referred to my friend's tumour as being "on" his bum as opposed to "up" it, he was not pleased (laughter ensued).
I was once talking about biting my tongue when someone had said something insensitive to me, and my friend, after an appropriate amount of understanding and sympathy told me to "shut up gummy." (I currently don't have many of my top teeth after my jaw was removed and reconstructed.) She made a good point, it's a bit hard to bite your tongue when you have no teeth!
Once you get diagnosed with cancer people start to tiptoe around you. It's not abnormal to hear things like "I'm sorry but do you mind me asking..." or "Oh, I shouldn't complain about work, you're dealing with cancer, that's way worse" and very quickly we no longer get to be a part of everyday conversations.
But with the cancer crew, having a laugh is one of the most important things. From laughing at hilarious typos, to laughing at the ridiculous things our doctors say. And gosh do I need someone to laugh with when I'm told by yet another colleague in all seriousness: "Teeth aren't important, you don't need them, you shouldn't worry about that."
Sometimes we even write limericks:
Growing up I wanted to be a dancer,
But on my career form, I must have typed 'cancer'
I can't dance to save my life,
And a tumour's put me in strife.
But at least I've got humorous banter...
While that last part might be debatable (Is humour in the eye of the beholder?) there is no denying the fact that the days would be longer and darker without people to joke with, though those people are also the first to give you a hug when something is wrong. Having that balance is what it's all about.