Got the ‘Big C’?

Cancer. It’s serious, uncomfortable, potentially fatal and seemingly not funny. And yet, when we are confronted by impossible situations, draw the short straw on health care providers, get screwed over by insurance, run out of money, and face bad odds, we have to laugh.

Cancer. It’s serious, uncomfortable, potentially fatal and seemingly not funny. And yet, when we are confronted by impossible situations, draw the short straw on health care providers, get screwed over by insurance, run out of money, and face bad odds, we have to laugh. What else can we do? Laughing says, I’m still here. I’m still me. Fuck you!

When my mother got cancer, she craved laughter. Laughter would mean things weren’t so bad. Laughter would mean she still existed, in the now. But the chemo ward is a rough crowd. There’s no laughter. There are people from every walk of life. Some look surprisingly healthy as they recline next to loved ones talking quietly, being brave.

Mom’s ears perked up when she heard the words baggies, cocktails and vomit. It sounded like her college days all over again. She tried to tell the nurses about her college days, about smuggling amphetamines across the border stashed in a box of tampons hidden under some dirty underwear. The Border Patrol never looked there, she smirked.

I didn’t tell her that she wasn’t hooked up to one of the good plastic baggies, one that held the fragrant green-or that I no longer had any connections. I didn’t want to tell her that there wasn’t going to be any booze in her “cocktail.” I knew she wanted a good stiff drink. I didn’t want to remind her that her vomiting wouldn’t be from the fun she had that day, that she wouldn’t be able to stop, and that the pill that could make her stop would cost $1,000. Thousand dollar pills don’t make you laugh.

But Mom’s attempts at laughter would prevail. On the day she was admitted to the nursing home, she would wear nothing but black. I gotta make the right impression, she wheezed defiantly. When a social worker expressed pity over my mother’s wig, I had to admit that Mom had always worn a wig, and that she still had all her hair. When a friend came to visit, Mom decided to reveal. Bet you’ve never seen me like this, she cackled, as she plucked off her wig and tossed it on the floor. Get used to it!

At the nursing home, Mom hung with the bad kids. She and the other senior smokers, the ones who weren’t catatonic, stayed outside in the smoking area. They were an elderly gang of sorts, smoking as many cigarettes as possible on the odd-numbered hours. I was proud of her. In spite of it all, she had made friends. She was in.

It took a month for me to bust her out. When I showed up solo after the thousand-mile drive, Mom had her lighter, her cigarettes and her remote control. She was good to go. Finally home, she sank into the couch. We both knew she was home for good. The nursing home had ceased to be an option. She was going to die in her house. And she did.

Everything gives you cancer

No one likes to talk about death. It makes people all squiggly. People die every day, but start talking about death, and everyone clams up like it’s not supposed to happen. Death isn’t funny. Death, cancer, the Reagan years–not funny.

But what can we do? Avoid everything to stay cancer-free? Stop living? Stop dying?

There are approximately 200 different varieties of cancer. There is also a seemingly endless list of carcinogens or potential carcinogens. If it takes more than one hand to count everyone you’ve known who’s had cancer, a healthy paranoia may set in. Am I next? There are many things that may or may not give you cancer:

Chlorine–Goodbye swimming pool, goodbye bleached printer paper, goodbye tampons and toilet paper. Goodbye bleached-out tea bags-better rip them open from now on and use a tea strainer.

Being fat–Being fat increases your chances of cancer.

Cigarettes–Did you know that cigarettes give you cancer? Chewing tobacco gives you gum cancer. Second-hand smoke gives everyone else cancer.

Pesticides–Give you cancer. Better grow your own.

Treated wood–Yep, gives you cancer. Better get cedar for your deck.

Smog and exhaust–Give you cancer.

Not having kids–Gives you cancer.

Stress–Gives you cancer. Ergo, midterms give you cancer.

Soil guard on your upholstery–Gives you cancer.

Radiation–Solar or otherwise gives you cancer.

Foods–Fat, red and processed meat and alcohol: cancer. Burned foods: cancer. Lots of salt: cancer.

Some molds–Some molds cause cancer.


Some viruses–Cancer.

Chemical dyes–Cancer.

Chemicals–My God, the chemicals. Go to for the plethora of chemical carcinogens. There are 1,233 of them.

Metal underwires–Urban legend has it that the metal underwire of your bra channels radiation from your computer monitor right to your body. It’s said to be especially risky if you sit in front of a computer all day.

Think happy thoughts

Holistic healers believe that healthy living depends on one’s thoughts. They believe the body’s immune system is influenced by the kinds of thoughts and feelings one experiences. Want positive results? Think positive thoughts. Want to risk your health? Dwell on the negative.

But forget all those doctors. Take the advice of a writer, Mark Twain, the great American humorist, satirist and orator. Twain believed the source of humor to be sorrow, not joy. “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand,” quipped Twain.

In the end, laughter may be our best medicine. Why not poke fun at cancer? At least we can die laughing.