Tag Archives: cancer

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 →

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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 →