September 28, 2023

What’s So Funny About Cancer?


I first posted this piece last summer, but knew I had to revive it when I got a great request from ChronicBabe for posts on the theme of chronic illness and humor:

Last week, I was interviewed in a Newsweek article about young adult cancer humor. I’m, not a very funny person. I’m just not. Don’t worry, I’m not being harsh on myself. I think I’m smart, compassionate, and fairly attractive. But, I’m just not very funny.

I love to laugh, but my humor is particular, maybe even stubborn. I can’t rent dvds from the comedy section; I just don’t find them funny. Nor do I find cancer jokes very funny. So, it was really hard when Newsweek asked me to contribute some jokes to the blog that accompanied the article. Here’s what I sent:

*What do you call a young adult cancer patient with health insurance? A Canadian.

*Why did the cancer patient cross the road? He wanted to get hit by a truck.

These jokes are the best I could do.

I’m not above cancer humor, and I’m not particularly politically correct. I just have a hard time laughing at something that has killed a lot of people I love, and caused me and my family enormous pain and distress. I have plenty of laughter in my life. But I don’t want or need it to come from my illness.

Jill Harrison, a young survivor in the article said she feels humor can be a cover up for issues we have a hard time talking about. I agree.  (Though I see exceptions, like Heidi Adams who is both a total jokester and very real about hardcore cancer issues.)

I find it strange that cancer is something people often relate to through humor. Why is that?  I never hear people cracking jokes when someone says their dad died of a brain anurism, or that their apartment was charred in a fire. Yet humor seems almost like a branded expectation put on oncology patients.

I feel like the cancer community often dumbs me down, like I need a little slap stick song and dance routine to make it through. And as a result, I see very little time devoted to the the hardest conversations of it all. Did you know that almost 1 in 4 young adult cancer patients won’t make it? How many resources are there talking about end-of-life care for young adults? Almost zilch. And that’s not funny.

When we start actually addressing the really, really hard side of cancer, maybe then I can start laughing about the rest of it. But probably not. I think cancer might always be serious to me. Instead, I’ll spend my time laughing at Cake Wrecks. Yeah, I do find some things funny. Just not cancer.

What is your take? Do you laugh at your illness? Is it ever nervous laughter or good medicine? If you have a disease other than illness, do you find that humor and light-heartedeness is used in your patient community?

Check out my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide To Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.  I didn’t think it was a funny book, but readers have told me it caused the kind of laughter that makes beverages squirt out your nose.

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  1. Bekah Says:
    August 4th, 2009 at 3:11 PM

    K -

    I honestly, could not agree more. Recently, when I read the newsweek article and found some of my fellow bloggers, listed there… as cancer being hilarious, I was proud of them. For several reasons. But just as you expressed, I AM NOT funny as well.

    I recently had to make my blog private due to the profession I am starting (children’s therapy); however, when it was public, and still to this day, I get hundreds of fans saying how inspiration, dynamic, strong, poetic, and lovely my blog is. Funny or hilarious is the LAST thing anyone would say abut my incurable-refractory-hodgkin’s diagnosis OR my self, personally.

    There are so, so many people I’ve met online and in person that are survivors that are hilarious, and cope with this in their own way — by being funny. And, I give them major props and respect for their quirky ways. However, it’s something after three years of on-going chemotherapy, have NO desire to do.

    I can be inspirational, give people strength as much as possible through my own story, show them guidance. But when it comes to laughing about the tumors that are eating at my insides? Maybe it’s me just being Bekah (which, I’m pretty serious most of the time and refuse to watch ANYthing of stupid humor in movies as well), but, I just don’t find it too hilarious.

    Glad you spoke your piece, some days… I think I go insane, while the rest of the world jokes. Other times, I just think, my cancer ate up my humor gene somewhere along the line, and being an advocate and activist is enough for me.

    Sending you love,


  2. Wendy S. Harpham, MD Says:
    August 4th, 2009 at 8:27 PM

    Dear Kairol,

    Nothing wrong with not liking the cancer humor scene. An underlying theme of my notion of Healthy Survivorship is that there is no one “right” way to “do cancer” or “do survivorship” or “be a healthy survivor.” However, there is a best way for you and a best way for me and a best way for my sister and a best way for…

    In my case, humor has been an instrumental tool for my survival. Let me clarify: saying and doing things that strike MY funnybone and make ME smile or laugh. I am well aware that often times people are laughing, too, because they can’t believe I find what I’ve done or said funny. That’s A-okay with me.

    I love my quirky, silly, under-the-breath or punny comments, especially when times are tough. I love to laugh, even at my own jokes. Okay, especially at my own jokes. And when I am laughing I can’t be crying, which is nice. I’ve cried plenty! No denial or repression in that category.

    Don’t worry: I am plenty serious when I need to be, such as when making treatment decisions or helping my children understand something cancer-related that is going on.

    For me, just because cancer is sad and bad and never ever a “gift,” I don’t have to feel sad all the time. For me, joking and teasing and punning and laughing gives me a sense of control over something horrible and frightening. It’s my way of thumbing my nose at a rotten situation. It’s one way for me to hold onto “me” when I don’t feel or look like the old “me” I’ve come to know.

    I am refraining from telling one of my terrible-but-funny-to-me jokes. So I’ll just sign off as usual, with hope. Wendy

  3. Aftercancer Says:
    August 4th, 2009 at 9:18 PM

    Nothing wrong with you not being comfortable with cancer humor. Me? I’m all over it. On April 1st my whole blog was cancer jokes and I read one the other day that made me laugh out loud (of course I won’t put it here because it was really bad). I’ve been told I’m funny but it’s not stand up, it’s just the way I react to situations I’m in.

    That being said, I’ve skipped Funny People so far because I’m not sure how I’ll take cancer humor from people who haven’t had cancer. Is that weird?

  4. Steve Says:
    August 4th, 2009 at 11:25 PM

    Great post, and a lot to think about. Because of my heart defect, I developed humor as a defensive weapon: it’s hard to laugh at the slow, tired, blue lipped kid when he’s laughing right along with you. (or *at* you!)

  5. Tara Says:
    August 5th, 2009 at 1:50 PM

    I feel the same as Dr.Harpham. I do think it’s really an individual thing, how people choose to deal and there’s no right/wrong, it’s what works for you. whatever makes you feel comforted, empowered, hopeful, strong, etc..And after reading some of the posts maybe it just has to do with one’s personality before cancer.

    I always used quirky,sarcastic humor and love to laugh. And I felt, like Dr. Harpham said, like it was one of the ways to say screw you to the cancer and hold onto the “old me”. it was the one part i could try to not have the cancer take, when I didnt recognize the rest of me. And I never denied/suppressed things. i always fully let myself be with the suckiness of it all, but for me, it was like ok, you embraced that part, now how do you pick yourself up and get thru the rest of the day, not get stuck there and for me, humor helped.

    i remember when i first found the “stupid cancer” site, and it amused me, and i felt strangely validated by it. especially since most of the cancer stuff i was exposed to, was obviously usually more serious or more cheesingly inspirational, or flowers&sunshine stuff, and if you think positive, everything will be wonderful.. that stuff annoyed me, it wasnt real to me, and i found the tounge in cheek/sarcastic cancer humor as being more real,more my style, and that kept me more “positive”..

    again it recognized the suckiness, but found a way to make me laugh, which is hard during cancer. and i took comfort in it, as i was being poked/prodded etc, i’d look over and see the stupid cancer pin or whatever on my bag, and it would make me laugh at the craziness of it all. and i know this sounds really weird to say, but i actually began to feel more “empowered” by it. I dont know why, but i did.

    And of course, it was never like, ha ha, isnt cancer so funny that it kills people? But more dark, sarcastic humor and always directed at myself and how things were affecting me, not others. I would never just start cracking jokes or anything in the waiting/chemo rooms cause it’s such a personal thing how people want to deal.
    There’s already so much seriousness and awfulness with the whole thing, if humor works to keep you strong, so that youre able to hang in there physically & mentally, advocate for yourself, etc.. why not?

  6. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    August 5th, 2009 at 9:07 PM

    Thanks for all of your comments. And keep them coming. I noticed a trend in folks mentioning laughing or crying. And I hear people talk about that a lot. The two seem on such extremes to me and I wonder about the space in the middle. Maybe cancer is such an extreme state and many people need to go to the polar opposite to get a much needed break from crying. This conversation has made me wonder what I use to cope since humor has never been a part of my cancer equation. (I love to laugh and have fun it just really has never been about my cancer.) I think my primary way of dealing with the intensity is to just dive further into it until it works its way out of my system for a while and then I focus on the other normal life thoughts that usually occupy my mind. I’m sure that writing a book about other people’s cancer was also a nice escape from my own!

  7. Michelle Says:
    August 5th, 2009 at 9:13 PM

    My husband used a form of sarcastic humor to get him through his chemo treatments. He was training for an Ironman triathlon when he was diagnosed. I struck gold when I found a T-shirt branded with the “Chemoman Triathlon”. This was shortly followed by a Mr. Yuk shirt and many, many others. The chemo nurses came to expect this tradition and I think it helped more people in that infusion room than just him. Of course, that isn’t everyone’s response or comfort level but something about wearing a shirt that said “Go ahead, poke my port” made him smile.

  8. Pat Steer (Gaelen) Says:
    August 6th, 2009 at 6:28 AM

    Kairol, I had to think long and hard about how to respond to this post-even went back to the Newsweek article (which I’ll be blogging about eventually, but from a different angle.)
    I agree with Wendy and the others who’ve said this is an individual thing, and there’s no right or wrong way to cope.

    But like Michelle’s husband, my approach since diagnosis has been dry, sarcastic, sometimes self-deprecating humor. Rectal cancer has a high ‘ick’ factor, for many reasons, and is perceived as an old person’s, even an old man’s disease. I was dx’d at 48-not old, not a man, and not willing to die quietly of embarassment like the awareness campaign. Appreciating humor, and making the right joke at the right time was always part of my life before cancer-that didn’t just stop after my dx.

    One of my reactions to my Stage IV dx, where a 5-yr survivor is a rarity, was: well, at least I won’t have to worry about dying of my family’s strong history of dementia. Asked to choose a restaurant for a co-worker’s lunch while on treatment, I responded: you want the woman with 24/7 nausea to pick the food? I joked about being able to shorten my Christmas gift list (and my boss, initially uncomfortable with my response, ultimately turned things around by joking, at Christmas, that I’d jinxed dying by joking about it.)

    Is humor about the very real chance that I’ll die of this hard for some people to hear? Yes…but it’s definitely the way that I can still feel in control of some part of this utterly uncontrollable ride as a survivor. I do try to be sensitive to those around me who are in a different place about dealing with cancer in general, but when it comes to dealing with my cancer, humor is my control mechanism, my way to help raise awareness and often, my ice-breaker to help diminish the ‘ick’ factor of talking about the symptoms and why people need to get screened-no matter how old they are.

    You mentioned that laughing and crying are such extremes that maybe people need one to deal with or take a break from the other. I’m going to go back to Joni Mitchell for my response to that-
    ‘laughing and crying, y’know it’s the same release.’ I don’t think they are linear extremes at all-I have laughed to tears and cried myself to laughter. I think they are flip sides of the same emotions.

    As always-great post, Kairol. Strong thoughts!

  9. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    August 8th, 2009 at 2:20 AM

    Pat - Oy vey, I have had Joni Mitchell stuck in my head for two days straight now. Thanks for your comment. I have not listened to her in a while!

  10. Alex Says:
    August 11th, 2009 at 7:12 AM

    When it comes to cancer humor, I’d draw a distinction between finding humor in one’s own situation versus finding humor in cancer in general. That is, one way I’ve found to cope with the physical (and emotional) consequences of my own cancer has been to find humor in it (e.g. “I can’t reproduce unless they allow human cloning” or “I’m feeling very emotional - maybe my hormone treatment isn’t working”).
    But I have to say I don’t find cancer as experienced by others and by people in general a source of humor. I can understand it when one person jokes about their own experience as they are probably doing what I’m doing: Disarming this beast by making fun of it.
    However, when I think of all the people I’ve known who have suffered or lost someone or have themselves died because of cancer, I can’t find a way to laugh. I’m more likely to start crying (insert hormone treatment joke here).

  11. Lisa Says:
    August 12th, 2009 at 10:32 AM

    I consider humor a necessity, but I have to agree. I have a hard time laughing at cancer. Cancer is scary and steals lives of all ages. A fear of the unknown, I suppose.

    I’m not sure how I’d feel if I were the cancer patient. I know watching people you love suffer with it is very unpleasant.

  12. Cle Says:
    August 17th, 2009 at 7:21 PM

    My husband was a huge jokester when he was diagnosed with melanoma at the age of 24. We went through a year and a half of ultimately unsuccessful treatments and one of the most important things factors that kept us going until the end was the sense of humor we developed about the whole ordeal. Being able to laugh at his cancer and at some of the more absurd aspects of the healthcare industry, treatments, and side effects made cancer seem less scary to us somehow and was often our only source of amusement in a day(particularly on those days spent almost entirely sitting in various waiting and exam rooms). If we could poke fun at the disease it took away some of the fear factor. We developed a mutual black sense of humor and an ability to find the joke in almost anything; cancer was our inside joke. Though my husband didn’t survive, because of his attitude no one ever felt like he was beaten by his disease. I’m coming up on the one year anniversary of his death and I still both laugh and cry when I think about him - but I definitely laugh more.

    As a postscript, I wish I had found this blog earlier, it is fantastic! Thank you.

  13. Amy Townsend Says:
    September 30th, 2010 at 6:57 PM

    I am a breast cancer survivor and I managed to find humor in my treatment. I do not find humor in those who are dying, but I do find humor in other areas. For example, when I was going through chemo and wearing a wig, I often received compliments like “Wow your hair looks great!” to which I would reply, “Would you like to borrow it some time?”. I’d often take the wig off at this point and hand it to them. The look on their face was simply priceless and made me laugh so hard! Sometimes you need to have a little fun when you are going through something difficult.

  14. peter lafond Says:
    October 1st, 2010 at 11:42 AM

    I actually laughed at the joke about crossing the road in order to get hit by a truck. And there is humor in a nutshell- the unexpected. But seriously laugher help in the release of endorphines so yeah when it strikes you laugh and make jokes bout your bad self and your condition. But don’t tell me i gotta do anything- be postive and whatever. Now for my main complaint
    My biggest cancer complain not medical is the way media and entertainment use cancer as a metaphor for something evil and rotten. Also ( ussually heard in police shows) telling some criminal that an old confederate died of cancer - haha jsut deserts. Nobosy deserves cancer nobody not Hitler not your worst enemy - why? cause to wish it on someone means it has to exists and cancer does not have any reason to exists. i might not know much but i know that much. peace

  15. phylor Says:
    October 5th, 2010 at 9:21 PM

    I have been blowen away both by your blog, and folks response to it. Along the lines of Joni Mitchell, tears from laughter are better than tears from pain: but they both are a release.
    Humo(u)r is a very personal thing: mine is particularly warped, but I inherited it from my father. I inherited chronic depression from my mother, so if I don’t laugh, I will cry and I rather laugh.
    Thanks for sharing this very personal piece of yourself.

  16. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    October 6th, 2010 at 12:03 AM

    Thanks for your comment Phylor. I don’t know where my cancer came from but my Dad has given me his warped sense of humor too. Hail to our dads!

    All my best,


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