Is Laughter the Second Best Medicine? (After Chemo?)
This month, to ward off scanxiety, I recorded myself performing a cancer stand-up routine I’ve been writing for some time. I turned a corner of my bedroom into a makeshift comedy club and set up a VIP table for three wigs – my audience. My club is called “Stand-up on Stage IV,” and with my four-year-old’s toy microphone in hand, I launch into a ten-minute bit about how cancer is messing with my social life, and how I’m proud of my newfound ability to talk about death without aggressive stress diarrhea (a joke that I’m so ticked I forgot to deliver during the skit that I decided to breathe life into it here).
I was nervous before filming. My kids were finally asleep, and I was trying to pull off so much in one night: performing a skit that was close to my heart, trying on drag-queen sized magnetic eyelashes for the first time, figuring out the camera and lighting, and most of all, selling the confidence (because humanizing myself is a huge part of this). Despite the tall order for a Monday night, it had to be done. It had been brewing in me for a while and had reached a boiling point. This is how all my creative projects come about. This is how I know they come from my gut – because not doing them feels worse than the vulnerability of putting them on the internet.
There is so much that is unfunny about cancer that I grapple with in other ways. Through writing, I worked through the trauma of my April 2020 mets de novo diagnosis. I’ve written heart-felt articles about grief, uncertainty and parenting with MBC. I write journals and poetry to my children. I have a therapist, and I’ve had numerous crumpled-on-the-floor moments where I’ve surrendered to the most wrenching emotions. In my post-diagnosis, post-treatment skin, it’s my sense of humour that brings me home again to who I am. And while cancer is not exactly a huge goldmine of funny, I keep finding rich veins of comedy in it: it’s slapstick, tragicomedy, and comedy of errors and of relationships. For me, there’s nothing more amusing than human nature in the raw, and whoa does cancer have a lot of that.
“We should say goodbye to my boob,” were my last words on the operating table, and my first, woozy declaration upon waking was: “I need a f***ing hamburger.” There’s humour in the fact that I dress up to get my Zoladex shot because I never get out, and that as a corollary to that, I expect to be the hottest one in the chemo ward, and get jealous of other women’s perfect skull shapes. It’s funny to say “mastectomy” and then watch people struggle to maintain eye contact, (i.e. keep their eyes off your chest).
It’s also funny how much I’ve grown. I look back fondly at my pre-cancer self. The one who thought stage IV meant instant death, and who lived like she could put off dealing with her mortality until she was 97. Sweet kid. Enter “Stand-up on Stage IV” where I poke fun at this naiveté from the vantage point of someone who has grown since diagnosis. I know things now, and I’m at a place where my laughter and playfulness reflect my learning, my coping, and even my healing. I have lists of ideas for future comedy skits.
Not everyone is going to find the funny in cancer, as the mixed reviews of my stand-up reveal. Some friends found it “too real,” and didn’t know if they were allowed to laugh, while others howled and lauded it for pushing boundaries. The ambivalent feedback has been another testament to my growth: it shows me how my sensitivities have drastically shifted since diagnosis (which is fundamentally what my skit is about.) The things I used to find unimaginable, daunting or taboo are more concrete and easier to talk or even joke about. I’m not a fan of forced positivity, and I’m not trying make cancer funny; rather, I acknowledge when it IS funny, and I’m empowered when I can laugh at it.
Regardless of what others think, my comedy is an authentic means of exploring, and sometimes taming, the beast. I did it for me, and even for my kids, for later, so that with or without me, they get to see what we can do with our suffering. I shared it for those without cancer to get a glimpse into my world, and for those with cancer who might connect to it. I also did it to show that people with MBC are living their lives, wearing hot leather pants and cracking jokes.
Nothing is black and white, and cancer is no exception. The color palette of dealing with a diagnosis – of confronting MY ending – offers so many hues, tints and shades of every kind of emotion. My reactions to cancer don’t stop at grief and pain. I feel overwhelmed, and raw. I feel awestruck, regretful, loving, and restless. I feel numb, proud, and over it. Sometimes I feel amused, and I laugh.
Cancer has so much absurdity to it, it would be a shame to stifle my laughter now. And if you still have doubts, let me end with the first line of my diagnosis story: “It was April Fool’s Day.” You can’t make this shit up. – Crysta Balis
For more stories about metastatic breast cancer, click here.