Living With Cancer: 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.”

“Thoughts and prayers are great, but Ativan and pot are better.”

“Thank you for the flowers. I hope they die before I do.”

“All your phone messages about how not knowing exactly what’s going on with me has stressed you out really helped me put things in perspective.”

“Xanax is white, Zofran is blue, steroids make me feel like throttling you.”

At 37, Ms. Riggs was told she had “one small spot” of cancer that, despite aggressive treatment, quickly spread to her bones. Inspired in part by her great-great-great-grandfather Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ms. Riggs ponders “how simultaneously cruel and beautiful this world can be.” In the process, she resembles her mother who liked to joke about her own terminal disease, “Dying isn’t the end of the world.” (Some readers may recall Ms. Riggs’s Modern Love essay “When a Couch Is More Than a Couch,” the response to which prompted her to write the memoir.)

In lyrical passages of “The Bright Hour,” completed just before her death, Ms. Riggs recounts her grief at the death of her mother from multiple myeloma; the support of her father, whose purchase of a motorcycle must have issued from a death pact — “over my dead body” — with her mother; and the loving intimacy of her husband and boys, who are poignantly portrayed as they reel through sunny and shadowy patches. This network helped Ms. Riggs rise to meet the challenge of her ancestor, Emerson: “to cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body, and to become as large as the World.”

Photo
A page from “In-Between Days” by Teva Harrison.

Credit
House of Anansi Press, Toronto

Teva Harrison, 37 when given a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, satirizes treatment in a graphic memoir, “In-Between Days.” To receive radiation aimed at a tumor on one vertebra of her spine, Ms. Harrison had to be positioned on a mold fitted to her body and then further immobilized by shrink wrap. In her drawing “On a Platter,” she feels like supermarket sushi which, she writes in the accompanying prose, “would be so fascinating if it just weren’t happening to me.”

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