Cancer Humor: Coping Through Laughter

Cancer Humor: Coping Through Laughter

Chiara Riga | September 2, 2021

I’ll never forget the first time I told a cancer joke around people who haven’t experienced cancer firsthand. I was chatting with friends about the COVID vaccines in late 2020, just before they were approved. I had said that I was excited to be able to get the vaccine early since I’m immune-compromised from my cancer treatment, and a friend asked me if I was scared to be one of the first to get a vaccine that was so new. “What’s it going to do?” I replied, “Give me incurable cancer? Oh, wait…”

I thought this was funny, but when I looked at the other little squares on Zoom staring back at me, wide-eyed with jaws dropped, I realized this joke didn’t land with any of the people I was talking to. It was in that moment that I realized the dark sense of humor that came with my cancer diagnosis might not be appreciated outside of the cancer community.

Impact of Cancer Humor

Cancer jokes remain taboo in our society, and that’s a real shame. The world we’re thrust into when we are diagnosed with cancer is incredibly dark, and it can be hard to fight that darkness as it tries to consume us. One important coping mechanism for cancer patients is joking about what we’re going through to make it feel less dark. In fact, the impact of humor during cancer treatment has been studied in a variety of scientific studies, and it has been proven to lessen anxiety and discomfort, have a positive effect on the patient’s immune system, and improve pain thresholds.

When the people around us show us that humor surrounding cancer makes them uncomfortable, though, it can make us feel more lonely and isolated, an already overwhelming emotion we often feel during and after treatment. One of the first things you can do to support your friend with cancer is learn about the landscape of this new world that they’ve been thrust into, and try your best to understand what they’re now dealing with while keeping in mind that you will never truly get it unless you experience it firsthand. Learning about this cancer world can help them not feel so alone and take the pressure off of them to explain every new medical term that is important for their treatment. 

Familiarize Yourself with Cancer Humor

As you’re learning about the cancer landscape, I suggest also familiarizing yourself with cancer humor. Check out which cancer accounts your friend is following on Instagram and Twitter – are any of them meme accounts? If so, it might be helpful to follow these accounts yourself to get familiar with the things that your friend might find funny during cancer treatment. While nobody is expecting you to be comfortable telling cancer jokes (and, in fact, I would suggest following your friends’ lead when it comes to cancer humor), seeing more humor surrounding cancer in your feeds can help normalize it for you. 

Not sure where to start when it comes to finding cancer humor? My personal favorite cancer meme account is @thecancerpatient on Instagram. It’s an account run by an anonymous nurse and 2x cancer survivor, and it’s incredible how close to home many of those memes hit for me. As a Schitt’s Creek superfan with a visceral hatred for the phrase “you don’t look sick,” this is my favorite cancer meme I’ve ever seen:

Support Your Friend with Humor

For some supporters, and even some patients themselves, humor surrounding cancer can simply be too much. That doesn’t mean that you can’t still support your friend with humor and help your friend get all the great benefits of humor during cancer treatment! Try and plan some get-togethers with your friend surrounding things that will make them laugh when they feel up for it. One of my favorite activities to do with friends that always brings on lots of laughs for all of us is virtual trivia nights. It’s a COVID-safe activity that I could do when I didn’t feel like leaving the house, and there are plenty of places that put on themed virtual trivia. We would often do trivia about topics such as Schitt’s Creek, Disney, and even 90-Day Fiancé, which were always especially entertaining.

But it doesn’t have to be as involved as a trivia night – that might be something your friend isn’t feeling up for if they’re experiencing chemo brain or fatigue. If they’re feeling up to having a visitor, though, you could do something as simple as watching a funny movie or bingeing a funny show together. 

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that humor, whether about cancer or just in general, can feel like a huge sigh of relief for someone going through cancer treatment. While what your friend is going through is very serious, that doesn’t mean that all of your interactions with them need to be. They are still the friend they were before cancer, and they want to laugh with you the way they did before cancer. Help them feel that sigh of relief by bringing humor into your interactions with them!

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