As a leukaemia survivor, I can unequivocally say that when it comes to a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment, laughter is probably not the best medicine. Chemotherapy is. So, where does that leave laughter?
Limiting the role of laughter
to a bit part side-kick would be wholly unfair. While I can only speak from experience, the small moments of joy and humour that I experienced during my 7 months of treatment for Acute Myeloid Leukaemia were not only relief from the trauma and difficulty at the time, but they remain vivid and happy memories to this day. They helped propel me through each day of treatment, reminding me that there was a sense of normalcy in my day, despite the extremely un-normal circumstances I was in.
Being able to laugh is one of the most basic human experiences. Across cultures and languages, across genders and ages, we all laugh. For me, being able to forget about my cancer and find humour in my situation
- even if just for a fleeting moment - made me feel human. It made me feel normal. And during a time when I felt anything but normal, as my Hickman line hung from my neck and chest, that feeling was the greatest thing in the world.
"But Alex", I hear you scream as you contort your beautiful face into a mixture of confusion and apprehension, "what could possible be funny during treatment for cancer?!"
Well, I'm glad you asked. It just so happens that on my first day in hospital (which was much like my first day at school only with less pressure to make new friends and a much higher rate of blood cancer) a kind nurse suggested I keep a diary of my thoughts and feelings each day. It was a passing comment but one that I took to heart. Across the 244 days I spent receiving treatment, I made note of everything. Whether it was minute or massive, horrifying or hilarious, I wrote it all down.
When I reflect on my 244 days in the jail of ill health I watch my own personal highlight reel of humour. So for anyone wondering what could be funny about cancer treatment,
here are a few gems plucked right from the moments they happened…
The Things That Made Me Laugh During Cancer:
- Anyone who's gone through cancer treatment will tell you, Doctors follow up everything. With chemo ravaging your body you become a sort of reverse superhero with absolutely no powers and whose weakness is everything. I had complained of soreness in my testicles - only I was not so technical with my doctor and had yelled out "my balls are hurting, is that alright?".
Having developed a habit of telling him literally every sensation I had in case it was relevant to my treatment, this one was just for laughs.
With a shake of the head- the type your Mum makes when you pretend to drop one of her best plates- he assured me that a set of aching balls was fine. But, since I'd brought it up, he was obligated to have a nurse give me a testicular exam. It appears I'd been undone by my own cheekiness. He gave me the choice of a male nurse or a female nurse.
As a 20-year-old I sat in a hospital bed, wearing the world's brightest Hawaiian shirt to allow my Hickman line to breath, and feeling like an alien in a zoo (I know aliens don't go in zoos but I’m trying my best here). It was a real tough choice, as any twenty-year-old could tell you, as I was split between choosing a woman and risking excitement or a man, which might be a little too weird. And yes, I know both of those are insane thoughts. It's unlikely the sterile surrounds of a testicular exam would excite me just as I shouldn't have felt strange about choosing a man to do it because it was a medical service. But I was twenty, I had Leukaemia and apparently, I was a bit of a goose.
I still look back on this moment and laugh just as I laughed at the time. It was so silly and surreal, brought on by my own hubris and made worse by my immature approach, but it distracted from my everyday routine. It was funny because it was so silly, and I quickly found the funny side in that. Turns out there was nothing wrong with my balls either, so that was good too.
– Before one of my routine platelet transfusions the nurses were going through all the paperwork they usually did. They asked me to confirm my name every time. Having done it 20 or so times it was routine. Today though the nurse looked at the label and asked, "can you confirm your name is Mr. Power".
The other two nurses yelled in unison, "it's PORTER". Clearly one letter had been smudged or misspelt. But I got such a kick out of their passionate defence of my actual last name that I would yell "POWER" anytime I saw them walk by. For months that made me laugh no matter what mood I was in.
– Through 6 degrees of separation I realised the nurse helping with my bone marrow biopsy was the mum of a girl I went to high school with. It turned out that a digital camera AND a printer were available in the ward so following my biopsy, and still high on morphine, I took a photo of myself, printed it out and signed it to give to my old school mate. I couldn’t stop cracking up at the silliness of the moment. It probably had a lot to do with how high I was on morphine but to this day the idea of her having a signed photo of me and my bald head, eyes sparkling and laughing like a lunatic, makes me laugh.
– My Dad excitedly puts a box of popcorn chicken aside on the windowsill to eat later. Five seconds later he bumps them, and they roll all over the floor to my uncontrollable laughter. He puts them back in the box and does indeed eat them later.
– My Dad wakes me up by speaking in his sleep, "The first one gets you a slightly different one" before screaming "WHAT". Then rolling over. I couldn't stop laughing imagining what weird dream he must have been having.
– I'd complained of a sore hip. When I look back on my cancer experience it really was just a lot of complaining. Over the previous week I had developed a soft mass, which became a hard mass and was causing me mass pain. I couldn't walk with it, or even move without searing pain that threatened to drop me to the floor. At one stage my doctors were worried I had broken my hip in my sleep – which was high praise because that's not easy to do.
Turns out a skin infection had gotten inside the muscles surrounding my hip. A process the doctors were confounded by. This cheeky batch of infection had banded together and was resisting antibiotics, leaving me with a very stylish and swollen sac of infected muscle inside my leg. At one point the doctors asked how I would rate the pain out of ten. I asked if there was an option above ten. It was that type of pain. But, as all things hospital related, there was always a funny side.
Right before my surgery to have the infected muscles removed – leaving me with a sexy scar, I had a quick chat with the surgeon:
Me – "So, you do these all the time right?"
Surgeon – "All the time mate. They're my butter and bread"
Me – "Don't you mean bread and butter?"
Surgeon – "Yeah. I must have just been mixing them up"
Me – "Please don't mix my legs up"
Surgeon – "What's that mate?"
Me – "Nothing, good luck!”
That bloody surgeon was messing around with me right before surgery and I loved it. To have some banter was so relieving. It took me out of feeling like a patient and back to feeling like a human. It was only a brief conversation and one that he certainly wouldn't recall. But it was a light-hearted moment between two people. Not as surgeon and patient, but two humans taking some humour from their brief connection in a lengthy cancer ordeal.
I remember waking up following the surgery in nothing but a full hospital gown too. Although I'd gone into surgery in just my undies. It cracked me up to think they had taken them off and put a gown on me. Handling a 6'2" ragdoll just rolling around like a crash test dummy being put into a car, the image of that made me laugh and still does today.
The truth is I could go on and on about my experience, knowing full well each memory is mostly funny to me and no one else. And I would be lying if I said it was not the greatest challenge of my young life. But, among all the horrible things that were occurring, there was always something to laugh about.
Which makes me realise that it's not that some cancer experiences contain humour and others do not. It's that life in general ALWAYS contains humorous experiences and it's up to us – as patients, as family of patients, as friends of patients and as medical professionals of patients, to help those moments shine through. Because they make such a difference. They make each day bearable. They make the memories of those struggles bearable. They make those fighting cancer feel alive, feel human and feel normal.
So in that respect, laughter really is the best medicine.