Tag Archives: cancer humor

Work/Life Divide

I was talking with a colleague recently about the hard transition from the easy, lazy, unscheduled days of summer to the overbooked, cramped, and face-paced fall routine. As a full-time graduate student and full-time senior lecturer, I’m finding it quite difficult to locate any semblance of a work/life balance. My friends from graduate school tell me I will find it (and my sanity) once I finish my dissertation, but I have never taken kindly to waiting, nor do I want to put my health and happiness on hold in my pursuit of the degree.

The researcher in me went to work. I read article after article on the relationship between stress and illness, unhappiness, and disease. I digitally paged through JAMA – the Journal of the American Medical Association – and found studies by neurosurgeons, psychologists, and general practitioners on the harmful emotional, mental, and physical effects continued stress could have on the body. I reread Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, a favorite analytical treatise, focusing on how the linguistic techniques of metaphors used to describe, categorize, and treat patients often discourage, stress, and alienate them all the more. I watched dozens of videos from motivational speakers on the work/life divide, some of them harsh, some humorous, others heartfelt and touching. I came across one video by BigSpeak with Juliet Funt, daughter of Allen Funt, acclaimed creator and host of the beloved show Candid Camera. In the clips, Funt speaks to 4,000 members of the emergency nurses association specifically about the work/life divide.

Through the vehicle of humor, Funt expresses sympathy and understanding about the impact of various life stressors on our daily lives. A favorite clip speaks to the acronym C.C.P.P., a list of attributes we as overworked Americans aspire to be: calm, confident, patient, and present. The conversation with my colleague, in conjunction with this clip, reminded me of the power of humor to bridge the mythical work/life divide. I feel the most fulfilled in my private and professional lives when the two are harmonious, when the personal and the pedagogical are one in the same.

This week in class, I emphasized the importance of stress reduction. I had students watch Funt in action. We discussed how our course readings were not just solitary, literary pieces, but small, applicable tales that, when used correctly, added some humorous sustenance to our daily lives and helped to close the illusory divide.

© 2014 Tara Friedman

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The “New Normal”: The Funny Thing About Cancer continues . . .

So I had a PET-scan recently.   It was almost pleasant.   Really.

These are tests I have to have periodically, an irritating necessity, just something I have to do to make sure that my “history with high-grade lymphoma” is staying where it belongs  —  in the past.

Don’t you love that phrase, by the way?  “High-grade lymphoma.”  Makes it sound almost desirable, doesn’t it?  Like something everyone should want — “I’ll have a little high-grade lymphoma with my coffee.”  “High-grade?  Damn, I wish I could get me some.”  Maybe even something that fuels your car — it certainly moves fast enough:  “Absolutely, fill the tank.  Don’t you dare use that cheap stuff, I only want high-grade lymphoma in my Hummer stretch limo.”

But I do like the first part of that phrase the doctors are using these days, “a patient with a history of . . .”  History.  That’s something I can handle.

My cancer’s in complete remission, and they hope it is “cured,” though what that means exactly, no one knows.  There is no five- or ten-year prognosis for my cancer, because they have only known about it for about 4-5 years and have been successfully treating it for only 3-4.  Nothing funny in that, really.  But there is hope.

As Mark Twain once pointed out, there’s no need for humor in heaven.

My transplant doctor did some complex blood testing; she says that my blood chemistry balance is perfect, fully recovered from the high-dose chemo that wiped my immune system clean before the stem-cell transplant.   This, she tells me, is my “new normal.”

Now, I have some mixed feelings about that.  On one hand, that’s great news — better news than anything I dared hope for.  On the other hand, this “new normal” takes some getting used to.  The doc tells me I can eat anything I want now — so long as my body can handle it.  Terrific news — but the last two times I ate in a restaurant, I spent more staring at the inner door of a bathroom stall than I did at the table.  And there wasn’t even any witty graffiti to read.  Don’t worry — I didn’t leave any, either;  it was actually a nice restaurant.  And no one else got sick, even though they finished my lunch for me.  My “new normal.”  At least I’ll save some money.

I’m no longer neutropenic (a really low white-count that means your body lays out a welcome mat and puts a light in the window for any germ out there — “Come on in, the eating here is fine!”), which means that the world is a lot less scary now (see my earlier post, It Takes All Kinds, about germs in public places).  But whenever I get sick, it seems to take 3-6 weeks to get rid of, and I develop two or three bacterial infections along the way.  I’ve had more antibiotics in the past year than I’ve had in the past 40.  Between chemo treatments, they kept me pumped full of the stuff plus antivirals, because my blood counts were so low that I couldn’t afford infections.  Now, getting infections seems to be my new job.  The doctors call it “re-training” my immune system.

That’s some on-the-job training I could do without.  But it’s better than being unemployed.

So — the “new normal.”

In addition to the blood chemistry, it means I also get to become acquainted with my new brain.  There’s this thing all cancer patients know about — called “chemo brain.”  Really.  That’s the fancy medical terminology.  Chemotherapy is rough on cancer cells, but it’s pretty feisty with the cells in certain parts of your brain, too.  They’ve actually done studies showing that post-chemo patients have trouble with things like finding a recipe, making a list of the ingredients needed and shopping for them.  The list and the shopping tends to be incomplete.  If you make the list for us, we can get the things on it, but until you realize this, cooking becomes an adventure in improvised ingredients.  Which isn’t always a bad thing.   I only found out that this was a documented effect of chemo brain after the worst of it had past.  I had just thought I was an idiot.

Organizing things remains a challenge, though, at least for me.  So does remembering.  Or finishing anything I start.  My house has become a trail of half-finished tasks — laundry half folded, dishes half done, groceries half put away, books laying around all over, half finished.

Okay, I can’t lay the blame for that last one on the chemo.

But I now have the attention span of a gnat.  It’s like I’ve become my children.  Can’t keep focused to save my soul.  I’ll be washing the dishes, and out the window, a bird will fly toward the bedroom.  Which will make me wonder if the bed’s made.  Without even drying my hands, I’ll wander back there, only to notice the half-folded laundry as I pass the couch.  I’ll stop, and fold a few things.  A stray thought will cross what’s left of my brain . . .

And I’ll remember that I started this blog, writing about PET-scans, which I mentioned in the first line, then started off on another trail altogether.

Chemo-brain.  It’s an adventure.

But it has its perks.  Any time I can’t stay on topic or come up with a good transition, I can just blame it on chemo-brain.  Maybe this “new normal” isn’t so bad.

So.  PET scans.  The PET-scan went well — almost a pleasant experience.

No, I wouldn’t really go that far. But how different it is when the nurse/tech is efficient, gentle, and more concerned with safety and sterile conditions than even I am.  The last time I had a PET-scan, the nurse/tech was a guy that made Sponge Bob look like an intellectual.  And his idea of adequate cleanliness was that he didn’t actually wipe the IV needle on his pants before jamming it in my vein.  But this nurse was lovely.  She even left the metal-encased syringe with the radioactive solution in another room until the IV was all set and flushed with saline. And the radiologist doing the scan this time had a sense of humor, too.

All in all, for being injected with a radioactive tracer and spending an hour in a claustrophobe’s dream tube with my arms above my head, being bombarded with more radiation, it was almost fun.

Naw. Continue reading →

Painfully Funny

Even before I got cancer, my favorite kind of humor was the type you might call “painfully funny.”   One of my favorite short stories, to read and to teach, is “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” by Sherman Alexie.  Jimmy Many Horses has spent his life “laughing to keep from crying,” as the old song goes, telling jokes to gain some illusion of control in bad situations, to claim his humanity in the midst of chaos, death, or inhumanity.  Problem is, he can’t stop telling jokes, even when telling his wife about his visit to the doctor, giving him his diagnosis of terminal cancer:

“I told her the doctor showed me my X-rays and my favorite tumor was just about the size of a baseball, shaped like one, too.  Even had stitch marks.”

“You’re full of shit.”

“No, really.  I told her to call me Babe Ruth.  Or Roger Maris.  Maybe even Hank Aaron ’cause there must have been about 755 damn tumors inside me.  Then I told her I was going to Cooperstown and sit right down in the lobby of the Hall of Fame.  Make myself a new exhibit, you know?  Pin my X-rays to my chest and point out the tumors  What a dedicated baseball fan!  What a sacrifice for the national pastime!”

Sherman Alexie Lone Ranger Tonto Approximate Size of My TumorWhile Jimmy’s wife needs him to be serious for a moment, to give her a chance to process her shock and grief, and while she might even have been willing to join him in jokes to cope later — Jimmy cannot stop and give her that time, even when she tells him she’ll leave him if he says one more funny thing.  But even in the midst of his fury at this unwanted and useless “sacrifice” that has been pressed upon him, Jimmy’s joke is brilliant, both inside and outside the context of the story.

The historical allusions to baseball and Hank Aaron’s supplanting of Babe Ruth’s home-run record (with his 755 career home runs) raise issues about the racism that plays a low-key but omnipresent role in the rest of the story.   Even in 1973, when Aaron was getting close to breaking Ruth’s record, he received about 930,000 letters, the majority of them death threats or wishes that he would die:  “Dear Nigger, You black animal, I hope you never live long enough to hit more home runs than the great Babe Ruth.”   Another letter that has been widely quoted wishes on Aaron a disease primarily connected with Africa and her descendants:  “Dear Hank Aaron, How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?”

But cancer, as Jimmy reminds us, does not discriminate; it is not a respecter of race, class, or power.  Cancer, like humor, is an equal opportunity offender.  And cancer has become almost like a national pastime.  You can’t go anywhere without running into those damned pink ribbons and pricey pink items commodifying death and infantilizing the very personal, protracted, and agonizing fight to survive against breast cancer, a phenomenon some angry breast-cancer survivors have labeled “pinkwashing” — all purchased with the best of intentions and the hope to find a cure.   But that support ironically creates a sense of audience, of fandom and voyeurism, the pink ribbons becoming our admission tickets to the new national pastime.  Cancer itself is like a bad joke that just won’t quit.

To me, it is this kind of humor that reminds us of who we are, how little we actually control, and why it all matters anyway.  Continue reading →

The Funny Thing about Cancer

Sometimes cancer creeps up on you.  Sometimes it pounces.

I got the kind that pounces.  Late last November, I found a swollen lymph node.  In late December, they removed it.  By early January I was in the hospital, beginning the seemingly endless rounds of week-long hospitalized chemotherapy, leaving the hospital only long enough for my blood levels to recover before going back in for more chemo, finally ending with an autologous stem-cell transplant on May 2 — a full Microsoft-style reboot of my immune system, using my own stem cells.

It was a rare and aggressive, double-hit, B-cell lymphoma, and already in Stage IV when they found it.   I was lucky from the very beginning, though.  If I’d had a different, more common, genetic anomaly — they would have foregone the chemo, patted me on the head, and told me to make peace with my maker.  But I didn’t get the peace, thank God.

I got the war.

One of the things I realized quickly was that my most valuable weapon was a sense of humor.   From the first moment I’d heard the diagnosis, I had wanted to run.  Away.  Fast.  But there was nowhere to run.

I named my chemo pole “George,” because he was a royal pain in the ass and my constant companion–he was officious, yappy, insistent, and he kept me on a short leash, beeping obnoxiously anytime there was air in the line, the pump was finished, or his batteries needed charging.  When the pressure from the chemo drugs would start building in my chest, I’d unplug George and walk with him around the atrium, fast, until the pressure eased, but all the while he relentlessly pumped poison into my veins.

Calling the pole “George” meant that he became a person to me, not a machine I could learn to turn off and unhook.   I deliberately did not watch as the nurses fiddled with the buttons and the tubing.  And I talked back to him, returning his officious noises with attitude of my own.  Some of the receptionists on the wards thought I was nuts, walking fast and talking to my pole.  I reassured them that it really was all right — I am nuts.

Being nuts helped in dealing with the doctors, too.  It soon became clear that oncologists really don’t pay any attention to the things that won’t kill you before the cancer does.  “Bumps in the road,” they call them . . . . Continue reading →