What's so funny about cancer (books)?

Here's a piece I wrote (with a few changes) for The Chicago Reader. It is way way way way shorter than it needed to be, but the Reader's news hole has shrunk and its parent company has filed for bankruptcy. I am thinking of expanding it for a Jewish magazine, since so many cancer memoirists are Jewish (secular, Ashkenazi). I want to see what's Jewish about their memoirs. In the meantime:

What’s So Funny About Cancer?
Breast cancer memoirists all seem to agree that laughter is pretty good medicine.
By S.L. Wisenberg

January 8, 2009

Breast cancer rates may be down in the U.S., but the literature of breast cancer metastasized at a steady pace in 2008, continuing what one scholar has called “a veritable torrent.” Breast cancer memoirs have become such staples—reliably displayed during Let’s Wave Pink Ribbons for Breast Cancer month—that it’s hard to remember a time when women didn’t document their journey from onset through the catalog of treatments to restored health, stabilization, or imminent death. But it wasn’t always thus.

True, British author Fanny Burney wrote to her family about the agonizing mastectomy she underwent—without anesthetic—in 1811. And Katharine Lee Bates (whose poem “America the Beautiful” became the famous hymn) wrote to friends in 1915 about her partner’s breast cancer and death. But neither of these works was published in the author’s lifetime. It was only after World War II that prominent American women went public with their tumors. Marion Flexner, wife of a well-known doctor, wrote “Cancer—I’ve Had It” for Ladies’ Home Journal in May 1947, breaking a taboo by refusing to euphemize her condition—and even inserting a little slapstick with a passage describing “roving boozies”: prosthetic breasts that escaped the confines of a bra and fell to the floor.

Humor is a component of most of the more recent breast cancer memoirs I’ve read, too, and I’ve been thinking about why. Laughter diffuses stressful emotions, of course, and humor is a near necessity if these books are going to appeal to cancer-free readers. But it’s mandatory, often, for the health of the memoirist herself: “Cancer humor is like a Zen laugh,” muses Katherine Russell Rich in her 1999 book The Red Devil: A Memoir About Beating the Odds. “[I]t’s a way of gathering back forces, a means of breathing in absurdity, darkness, and pain and blowing them out in one great, joyous guffaw. It is, finally, a form of power, laced with machismo. Fuck you, death. I laugh at you.”

In the same spirit, Joyce Wadler writes in My Breast (1997) that having a disease with an uncertain outcome made her “the dream girl of every uncommitted man in New York.”

A number of the memoirs include a final chapter in which the author reflects on the gift of cancer—how it brought meaning and depth to her life. Fortunately, that view has spawned a comic backlash. “If it is a gift,” writes Shelley Lewis in Five Lessons I Didn’t Learn From Breast Cancer (and One Big One I Did), published in 2008, “don’t come to my birthday party.” And cartoonist Miriam Engelberg refutes the soul-purifying attributes of cancer in her “memoir in comics” from 2006, Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person.

I’ve also noticed that most of these books contain a noncancer story, the purpose of which may be to establish the writer as a unique person with a unique life—not just, as Lewis puts it, “a tumor in a skirt.” Betty Rollin’s First, You Cry (1976, updated 2000) is also about leaving her husband. Geralyn Lucas (Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy, 2004) wants us to know she was 28, and had been working as assistant story editor at 20/20 for less than a year when she was diagnosed. And in the richly colored graphic memoir Cancer Vixen: A True Story (2006), Marisa Acocella Marchetto describes her life as a shoe-loving fashionista, working cartoonist, and fiancee/wife of a chic restaurateur.

Then there are the women living pleasant-enough lives in the title locale of Kelly Corrigan’s 2008 The Middle Place, where she was trying to negotiate her roles as mother and daughter when she found the lump. The author of this fall’s Cancer Is a Bitch: Or, I’d Rather Be Having a Midlife Crisis, Gail Konop Baker, was trying to keep up her confidence as a writer, and not lose her identity to marriage and motherhood. The book also becomes a memoir about her dead brother. Meredith Norton, the lone African-American among last year’s breast cancer memoirists (Lopsided: How Having Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting), was living a confused life in Paris with a Frenchman and a toddler, uneasy in the new language and culture and assiduously not fulfilling her promise. They tell their stories with mild humor and warmth, forming a lake for the cancer story to swim in. Lewis' book tells her story, while blending in (not all seamlessly) interviews with tough women--artists, politicians--who haven't let the cancer stop them.

Enid A. Schwartz, a nurse and breast cancer survivor, wrote her dissertation, “The Use of Humor in Coping With Breast Cancer,” in 2006 for Walden University (and published it as Humor in Healthcare: The Laughter Prescription). Most of the uses she lists are commonsensical: Humor can be an outlet for feelings that are taboo or painful. It’s a way of getting perspective, an effective defense when “facing difficulty, feeling overwhelmed, out of control.” It can decrease sadness and fear, help you form bonds with others, decrease tension around you, help you see the ridiculousness of the situation. Laughter can buffer stress better than crying.

But there are times when a patient needs to be sad, Schwartz says. Rollin writes self-critically of her frantic chattering after surgery: she referred to herself breezily as a “titless wonder” and talked about the operation at social events. Then she realized she was using humor to hide her sadness from herself, to keep from feeling the loss. Norton calls herself the perfect patient, with her huge veins and easy jokes. She notes that the hair she’s losing in the shower has formed a pile near the drain “the size of a Pomeranian.” But then she realizes she’s bald, and that isn’t funny.

Sometimes you can feel the forced humor seeping through the page, covering up true emotion: Sprightly, stoic, and vain, Lucas describes weighing her options for breast reconstruction. One method involves taking fat from her buttocks to fill in the breast shape—but she doesn’t want to “lose a piece of ass.”

There’s absurdity galore, to which humor is the only viable answer. Audre Lorde is told that she should wear a prosthesis when she comes to the doctor’s office because a half-flat chest is “bad for morale.”

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer I decided to try not to read anything by people like Lorde, who’d died of it. (Thus the quote above is second-hand.) I found out that Engelberg did after I read her cartoon book. I made an exception for ovarian cancer casualty Marjorie Gross. I’ve loved her 1996 New Yorker essay “Cancer Becomes Me” ever since I first came across it, in my pre-cancer days. She wrote for Seinfeld, and her piece crackles: “So I had a hysterectomy, and they found a tumor that they said was the size of an orange. (See, for women they use the citrus-fruit comparison; for men it’s sporting goods: ‘Oh it’s the size of a softball,’ or, in England, a cricket ball.)” Among the positive things about having cancer, she counts no one asking you for help them move.

Laughter comes from unexpected comparisons. In The Wounded Breast: Intimate Journeys Through Cancer (2001), Evelyne Accad, a University of Illinois professor, quotes the gallows humor of Ania Francos, author of the 1983 novel Sauve-toi, Lola. The narrator has lost her hair to chemo and is looking at herself in the mirror. “I started having a laughing fit,” she says. “Just then, my sweet mother entered the room, with . . . my Aunt Rivke. Of course Aunt Rivke [a Holocaust survivor] says: ‘So you’re off to the gas chambers, are you?’

“And we both were doubled over laughing. My aunt couldn’t stop rocking back and forth; she was almost crying.

“‘If you could have seen us at Auschwitz, when we were all together, naked, shaven, tattooed. There were some who started crying, but . . . we began to laugh, and I mean laugh!’”

As George Eisen says in Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games Among the Shadows: to play in the midst of evil and death is defiance, a “disposition to oppose one’s annihilation.” It’s an escape of the mind when the body is trapped—whether by soldiers, walls, and crematoriums, or disease.

S.L. Wisenberg’s own memoir, The Adventures of Cancer Bitch, will be published by University of Iowa Press in March 2009.