What's so funny about cancer?

Cancer. Funny.

Two words I never thought I’d see–or use—in the same sentence.

Yet there they are.   On the movie marquee.  On television.  And at the top of the New York Times Sunday Style section—a feature piece called Laughing at the Big C.

You’re not alone if this whole subject makes you squirm, not smile.

What could there be to laugh about?

When I got cancer I was 44;  I had a terrible diagnosis, two children; and I had lost my own mom to cancer when she was 41.  I figured I was headed down the same path.  Honestly I thought I’d never laugh—or even smile–again.

And then I learned—what’s so funny about cancer.

I learned that you can find humor in anything and everything–if you choose to see it.

I learned that when it comes to cancer, the humor comes the way I drink coffee—black.

I learned that as Jack Nicholson famously said, you have to handle the truth.

And the most surprising and significant thing I learned– is that laughing about cancer is powerful.

Everything about cancer makes you feel powerless.  From feeling like an object, forced to submit to prodding and poking…. to the vast unknowns—mysteries not only to you but also to your doctors….to the fact that you can’t even control your own body, which has suddenly turned against you.

It feels as if cancer has all the power—which is why it feels so good to take some power back.

The balance of power shifts when you can laugh in the face of what scares you most.  And sometimes, at a time like that, what else can you really do?  Plus it turns out that laughter itself is healing—physically and emotionally.

When I had cancer I didn’t know all that.  But once I felt the power to laugh, I wanted to share it.  So I started collecting stories from other cancer patients who had managed to find something—anything—to laugh about—from wigs set on fire to friends who apologize when they order a chicken breast for dinner.

Mixed in with the fears and tears, the humor in cancer is no surprise to anyone who’s had it—And whose life hasn’t been touched by cancer?

That’s why I think it’s important to see cancer humor emerge into the mainstream—and 50/50 is a terrific example.   It’s got all those things I learned —it’s black, truth, power—and  it’s funny.

And this same message applies way beyond cancer.  When you face any challenge or something that scares you—if you discover something you can manage to laugh about, more power to you.

 Also posted on the Huffington Post

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  1. marla wentner says

    I am glad you enjoyed 50/50. I thought it was an absolutely terrific movie, made more special by the fact that the director/screenwriter and Seth Rogen have a friendship that included a cancer diagnosis and trying to find a way to laugh about it. I hope people won’t be frightened away by the concept that one shouldn’t “laugh at” cancer, because they will miss an opportunity to look at it in a different way, just as you say in your blog.

  2. V says


    A really instructive piece – when facing any of life’s challenge’s, if you can see some humor in the circumstances, you have power. If not, you not sacrifice your power.

    This morning you brought up an issue that has confronted you for some time. Thus far, I don’t believe you have been able see any of its humorous or ironic aspects. I think that they are there, if you choose to search. It might be good medicine for you if you took this suggestion to do so.

    I realize that this is unsolicited advise. I will accept either a ‘thank you’ or a ‘f**k off'” with equal aplomb.

    Your ever loving,

  3. says

    I thought 50/50 was terrific too—especially the fact it evolved from a true story. Also think it’s wonderful that it comes from the Judd Apatow comedy zone —and will be seen by an audience that typically wouldn’t go near a movie with this subject matter. It puts a whole different spin on those buddy movies—a great way to bring cancer into the “mainstream.” Haven’t checked box office figures so have no idea how it’s doing or whether it’s scaring people away. Hope not—I think audiences might never think of cancer patients the same way. Thanks so much, Marla—you really are a movie buff—you seem to see everything!!

  4. says

    Uh oh. It’s not that I wouldn’t accept your unsolicited advice with a sweet “thank you”—the problem is I have absolutely NO idea what issue you’re talking about–my brain cells as you know are disappearing as I write this. You will have to remind me when you get home–I wouldn’t want to miss any opportunity to laugh at something—including, or especially, myself. xxxoo
    PS Do you think blog comments qualify as “couples therapy?”

  5. marla wentner says

    My favorite thing about the above comments between you and V is that it just brings home so clearly the fact that communication, even between two extremely intelligent human beings, can go completely astray. For V to sense that there is an issue so large that you need to laugh at it, and for you not to even know what that issue is, just shows that you two are really very human. And, yes, I do think that blog comments qualify as couples therapy. I hope we dear readers hear more about this situation!

    And I truly believe that movies are therapy. I do see all movies, and when I leave the theater with the feeling that I am in a character’s skin, I know that it is a well made film. Movies are powerful communication, and I agree that 50/50 will be seen by many because Seth Rogen is in it, and cancer will be a topic of conversation for those fans who might not have given it much thought.

  6. says

    I did ask V what he meant and it turned out to be forgetfulness, not communication.
    And we see a lot of movies, too–in fact tonight we just saw Ides of March–what did you think of that? Lately it seems as if Ryan Gosling is in everything—for good reason. He’s fantastic and adorable— the new George Clooney?

  7. marla wentner says

    I don’t think there will ever be another George Clooney, but Ryan Gosling is pretty incredible. I loved “Lars and the Real Girl” especially. However, “Drive” was really disturbing and I wish he hand not made that one…it’s the only Ryan Gosling movie that I really had trouble watching. Ides of March was a good movie. Unfortunately, it was totally believable. I am excited about seeing “Footloose”, even though the advance reviews have been pretty bad. Any movie that has dancing in it is worth seeing, no matter how bad the storyline might be! Let’s hear it for “Dirty Dancing”!

  8. says

    He might not be Clooney but I think Ryan Gosling can do no wrong—including Drive which was not my taste either but I thought he was fabulous—it showed his incredible range and I guess his vulnerability since I ended up caring about his character. We’re also planning to see Footloose this weekend–I’ve stopped reading reviews for the most part but from what I gather, Julianne Hough will have a real movie career. Hmm ….from marriage counseling to movie reviews….

  9. marla wentner says

    Okay, getting off the subject here, but kind of not…..”Footloose” was really entertaining in my opinion, and oh, the dancing! And I would say that Julianne Hough has a real career ahead of her — sort of a young Jennifer Aniston (and isn’t that sad that we think of Jennifer Aniston as anything but young). But had to comment for your other readers out there that it is worth seeing. I missed Kevin Bacon, but, hey — what can you do?

  10. says

    I always wonder why they make so many remakes—in this case it’s worth it. We saw it last night; I thought both leads are fabulous; apologies to Kevin Bacon but I liked it better than the original. Enjoyed every minute.

  11. says

    Black humor is a Venerated Family Value in my tribe. A great example, my elderly and ill father was at home, running a high fever, unable to walk. I suspected he had pneumonia, wanted to get him to the ER. Dad was having non of it. I was in my late 20s at the time and didn’t have as much confidence or clout as my much older brother. Called my brother in and witnessed the following exchange:
    Brother: Pops, we need to get you to the ER. We think you might have pneumonia.
    Dad” *%$#X. I’m not going! (To be fair, Dad was TIRED of frequent hospitalizations at this point)
    Brother: You need to go…
    Dad: Why don’t you just take me to the funeral home instead?
    Brother: You know why? Because you have to be room temperature to be admitted to the funeral home and you are WAY, WAY ABOVE ROOM TEMPERATURE. I’m calling an ambulance….

    {Believe it or not, every time I remember this exchange, it makes me smile. I love my family’s humor and scrappiness}

  12. says

    I just found your blog while researching how to cretae a button and came across your sons story. I just wanted to share that my brother was diagnosed with ALL when he was 18 months old. He also went through many medical treatments such as chemo, radiaiton and marrow transplants but he is a healthy 30 year old man today! I will be praying for your son and your family during this trying time!

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