In the January 1993 edition of McCall’s, TV journalist Linda Ellerbee wrote about some of her humorous cancer experiences:
“That summer I bought some breast prostheses to use while swimming. Instead of fastening them to my skin with Velcro as the directions instructed, I simply inserted the prostheses into my bathing suit. When I came out of the water, one had migrated around to my back! Now, how can you not laugh at such a thing? Either you laugh or you cry your eyes out.
And when Ellerbee’s daughter saw her mom with no hair, due to the chemotherapy treatments, and no boobs, she said, “Ma, you look just like Buddha but without wisdom.”
Erma Bombeck, the humorist also found some humor after she had her breasts removed. She said, “As I left the doctor’s office the nurse put an envelope in my hand and said, ‘This isn’t a real prosthesis, but slip it into your bra and you’ll look a little more balanced.’ In the car, I opened the envelope, extracted a small wad of cotton, and shouted, ‘My God! I’ve got bigger dust balls under my bed than this!’”
Anatole Broyard, in his brilliant book, Intoxicated by My Illness, writes eloquently about being diagnosed with prostate cancer. One of the striking points he makes is that “Illness is primarily a drama, and it should be possible to enjoy it as well as to suffer it. . . Illness is not all tragedy. Much of it is funny.”
In my book, The Courage to Laugh, I share many of those funny cancer-related moments. For example, in my humor and healing programs, I do an exercise with red clown noses. Everyone in the audience gets a sealed packet with one inside. With their eyes closed, I ask them to think of some difficulty they are having and then, still with their eyes closed, to open the packet and put the clown nose on. Then I ask the audience to open their eyes and look around the room.
I was a little reluctant to do this activity, however, when I addressed the annual meeting of the National Coalition of Cancer Survivorship. I knew that a number of people in the group had facial cancer. Some had only a partial nose, some none at all.
I checked with the meeting planner to make sure that the clown-nose-process was appropriate. She assured me that even those with facial disfigurement would love it. Still, I was uncomfortable about doing it. My fears were quickly alleviated, however, when the group not only responded with overwhelming laughter but also delighted in sharing stories with me about their prosthetic noses.
One woman joyfully showed me a Polaroid photo taken in her hotel room minutes before my speech. She told me that she was getting ready to attend my talk and proceeded to put adhesive glue on her prosthetic nose. Then she waited for it to dry. When it came time to attach the nose, however, it was gone. She could not find it.
At that moment a friend knocked on the door. So she asked her friend to help locate it. The nose was finally found and a picture taken. It showed the nose stuck to her rear-end.
She delighted in telling me the story and in explaining the photo. But she was even more elated with the her new clown nose. She said, “This is great. From now on, I have a choice of which nose to wear.”