A poignant question

My therapist (also a fellow cancer survivor) asked me, “What are you doing now that you wouldn’t have done before your diagnosis?” ‍

I had to think about it for a few moments.

One thing came to mind. I have always been a mostly positive and humorous person. However, from the early days of my diagnosis, I decided to be especially careful not to dwell on the negative aspects of what was going on.

One thing was clear. Work, parenting and being an adult had gotten in the way of being that person all the time. Now I wanted to bring more light to the world rather than just absorbing it from others or even extinguishing it.

What’s so funny about cancer?

Well, nothing is funny about cancer. But when you are funny about your situation of having cancer or ‘Fighting cancer’ people get so surprised it’s like a relief for both you, the cancer patient, and them.

By being funny with those around me I was still the essential ‘me’, maybe even a better me. It was my best self or peak self as psychologists would say.

Just like my body was purging itself of cancer cells during chemo, I was purging my personality of negativity. More ‘yes, and’ and less ‘no, but’ (borrowing from the world of improv).

How does humor work?

Catherine Life, in her TED Talk ‘Why Having Fun Is the Secret to a Healthier Life’ broke down humor into 3 key ingredients:

1. Playfulness: Having a light hearted attitude where your guard is down

2. Connection: Having a special shared experience with somebody else, even for introverts

3. Flow: You cannot have fun if you aren’t in a flow state which allows you to be in the present

Fun is a joyful state of being that creates hormonal changes that are healthier for you. However in everyday life we don’t prioritize it. It’s not like we can add ‘One hour of fun’ to our work calendars. Instead we need to add fun into everyday moments or interactions with others.

This creates a ‘peak’ state, which for me, is what I like to think of as my ‘true’ self where I find rebellious moments or deviation from norms. I try not to let the cancer get in the way of this as I feel I’m losing some of myself to the illness.

Cancer wards are not the funniest of places

Anyone who has spent any time in hospital can tell you that they are lonely places despite being filled with thousands of people at any given moment. Since the nursing staff become your main point of human contact you kind of want them to stay longer with you rather than with other patients.

So what could I do to make them want to stay longer? There’s something very human about being drawn to humor and the nursing staff don’t expect it. I looked to my context for inspiration. With one nurse who was taking an ultrasound of my leg we joked about this first date was moving along pretty quickly since she had to take my pants off and gel my legs up. She had to rub my gelled up legs too. I joked about not even seeing the wine list yet…

We laughed and I felt better. While I’m not going to be appearing on a late night chat show as a comedy act any time soon you get the general idea. Each human interaction was a chance to think about the other person’s situation, not my own.

Humor is medically measurable? What?

I felt like I was on the right track about humor and cancer treatment but how could I prove it wasn’t just all in my head?

Turns out there have been many medical studies written over the years that all conclude that there are measurable contributions of humor when added to the cancer treatment process. From breast cancer to colorectal cancer to anyone receiving radiotherapy there seemed to be a wide range of cancer related illnesses that looked into this approach (see bibliography below).

In each case a study proved that either a patient’s immunity went up or their longevity increased or a reduction of the stress hormone cortisol or some other quantifiable result. Lacking the resources to conduct a 5 year study of my own I needed to find a way to put this insight to use straight away in my everyday life…

Humor is addictive, cancer is not

When I got out of hospital I realized I needed a process for friends to ask questions and talk about what was going on with me. I really didn’t want cancer becoming the only thing I talked to friends about. I hit on the formula of updating them but with a lot of humor thrown in. This gave them permission to be funny back or at least not be so solemn about our conversation.

From there it was a lot easier to talk about everything else going on in either their life or my life. This could be from simple things like the latest TV shows to more lofty things like the mental strain of a friend who may be potentially moving his family back to Germany after living in California for 10+ years.

Of course all this would have humor interspersed throughout since it is this human chemistry draws us together so well as a species. If you make the conversations funny, your friends will come back for more, not just updates on your medical status.

Control the uncontrollable

My situation involves having a particularly virulent case of Leukemia that keeps changing. I can’t control it. I could feel powerless when there are setbacks every now and then.

I was in a group therapy session a few weeks ago when I mentioned that losing your sense of humor is a bit like losing yourself. That’s who I am. It’s also a part of the process that I can still control. Not everyone may want to focus on humor when faced with something so serious.

Humor is so universal it could be everyone’s thing. I encourage everyone to find whatever it takes to provide your own positive feedback loop and lean into it. From sports statistics to cooking to knitting, it could be anything. Throw a bucket down into that well of happiness beneath.

Focus on fun, it’s ok

I now spend a lot of time bringing joy to all those I interact with. I’ve become a much happier person, and family life is calmer and more radiant. This positive feedback loop has been really healing for me. It’s also benefited those around me based on the laughter I hear more often than ever before in my daily life.

It makes so much sense as a way to live that I’m now asking myself why on Earth didn’t I start doing this earlier in my life? Why wait until having cancer? It takes a little extra time and effort every day. It is hard at first.

However, for me, this is what ‘fighting’ cancer looks like.


These are just a selection of some of the many studies out there: