Cancer Humor

How could I bear any of this without humor? Without unexpected moments of levity startling me back to the joy of life? Moments that I hold on to when the needle bites, the medicine burns, the nausea rolls, and eyes that are precious to me fill with tears I’ve caused, whether I meant to or not.

December 16th, 2019:

I’m at the cancer institute for a full-body PET scan and an MRI, scans that will tell the pathologists where my cancer is, how far it’s spread, and how aggressive it might be. They’ll have to insert an IV, since both scans require contrast. I hate IVs, sitting in my arm, tugging on tender things. I hate not being able to take comfort in a cup of coffee before these procedures. I’m tired.

I take a seat in the waiting room with my sister. There are several other people seated around us. Some sit rigid, on the end of their seats. Some shift nervously. Hill and I lean together, quiet. Everyone else is quiet too and tense. The room, cold despite the institute’s efforts to make it otherwise, is made soft by our bodies, our feelings, our clasped hands. All of us waiting for news that will shape the rest of our days, good or bad.

A million thoughts swirl in the back of my mind, each one a leviathan. Every time I look at my sister my heart breaks and is stitched back together. For the third or fourth time since we got here, I stand up and go to the restroom. On the way back, I assume a confident stride, figuring this will bolster my courage the way forcing oneself to smile is supposed to relieve sadness. My sister looks over at me as I walk down the hall toward the waiting room, my arms swinging confidently, and she bursts out laughing. It’s a laugh that takes me back to childhood, when we would get a fit of giggles during Sunday service. An outlaw laugh, bursting forth where least appropriate, and all the more pure for it.

She points at my feet, and when I look down, I see a long strip of toilet paper stuck to my shoe. Classic. I burst out laughing as well. And then side-step out of sight behind a wall to remove the toilet paper, which makes us both laugh harder. I then slide back into view and return to my seat. Both my sister and I are laughing so hard we can’t breathe. Everyone in the waiting room looks at us with a mixture of confusion and disapproval, which makes it impossible to stop laughing. I recognize this moment as the gift it is. I file it away with gratitude.

March 25th, 2020:

I’m meeting with my new oncologist today. It’s finally time to start treatment, and he’s going to go over the regimen and what I can expect. At this point, I’m pretty sure I’ll decline the treatment. I’ve read the final pathology report and diagnosis. The odds are definitely not in my favor. And I’m full of so many stories of people who have gone forward, only to be met with more suffering and heartache than they might have if they’d opted for palliative care and hospice. In my brain, there’s a funeral. In my heart, ashes.

The nurse ushers my sister and I into a room where she can record my weight and vitals. I sit down on a chair so she can take my blood pressure. We’re all quiet. I’m tense. After the blood pressure, I slip my arms back into my sleeves, and something falls out onto the floor. I, my sister, and the nurse look down at it, trying to figure out what it is. We all connect it at the same time and burst out laughing together. A sock! A sock that got stuck in my sleeve during laundry. I’m too sore still from the thoracotomy to reach the sock, and my feeble attempts to grab it make us all laugh harder. My sister grabs it for me as I make jokes about what else might be hiding up my sleeve. This break in the ice turns out to be a good omen, as I end up liking the new oncologist and decide to trust his plan. Another gift, filed away.

April 8th, 2020:

First day of chemo. A day I was set against. A day I’ve dreaded. But the room is warm and pleasant. The nurses are kind. I’ve been told I’ll receive an infusion of pre-meds that will help fight nausea, and then they’ll start me on the star of my regimen, which they say about 50% of people react to. And the reaction can be severe, so they’re going to push it very slowly at first, and assure me they’re prepared to reverse the reaction if one happens. They tell me to notify them immediately if I don’t feel right, if I feel scratching in my throat, or if it gets harder to breathe. Ok. Deep breath.

The nurse starts the pre-meds and leaves. I suddenly have a weird twinge in the pit of my stomach. I tell my sister I don’t feel right, and she asks if she should get the nurse. I hesitate because these are just the pre-meds. Then fire shoots up from my stomach into my chest, then toward my throat. I tell my sister to get the nurse, I’m having a reaction. The nurse comes over, incredulous. No one reacts to the pre-meds. But my reaction is unmistakable. By this time, my face is red, I’m sweating, and my back is arched as I struggle to breathe. Everyone panics. One nurse grabs oxygen and puts it on me, then turns off the drip. The other runs to get the PA. All gather around me, puzzled, discussing what could have caused the reaction and the best course forward. I recover quickly once the drip is stopped. They end up having to push the pre-meds slowly, and I have practically no reaction to the medicine they were afraid I would. This flip feels like a joke my body is playing on us all, and I can’t help but chuckle. The rest of the chemo session goes better than I thought it would because of this moment, and I’m not as afraid. Another gift, filed away.

There’s a scene in Harry Potter, The Deathly Hallows Part I, that I find the most significant and touching of all the scenes from the films. It’s when Harry and Hermoine dance in the tent, when despair is at its strongest. Ron has just left, jealous and bitter, and on bad terms. Their friends and family are dying or in danger. They’re exhausted. They can’t find out how to destroy the remaining horcruxes, let alone find them all. But in the midst of all this, they dance. It’s melancholy but also deeply joyful. Voldemort can take so many things, but he can’t take this moment, this act that pushes back against the darkness.

That’s what cancer humor is for me. Dancing when despair is strongest. Finding joy while lost in the dark.

Addition: I am saddened by J.K. Rowling’s transphobia, displayed in her anti-trans tweets during Pride month. Aisling Walsh provides an excellent critique of the Harry Potter series and J.K. Rowling’s treatment of gender. Though I too took comfort in this series, especially where it addresses grief and loss, I can’t help but see J.K. Rowling’s words aligning more with her villains than with her heroes. And her intolerance makes it harder for me and other transgender people to exist safely in the world. May our magic be stronger than her hate.

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