Knock Knock. Who's There? Cancer!

Cancer is no laughing matter. But here's how to use humor to heal and cope.

By Robin Shlien, Aviva Wachs, published on September 1, 2000 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

"I told you I was sick." Twenty people in various stages of cancer roar with laughter as someone reads aloud what she'd like written on her gravestone. This is part of a workshop we call Humor Heals, which we are facilitating at the Wellness Community, a cancer support center in Santa Monica, California. Through improvisation and exercises such as asking people to write their own epitaphs, we help patients use their own sense of humor to cope with their illness. Rather than just donning a red nose and clowning around (we're therapists, after all), we ask that each person seek the absurdity in his or her own situation.

We came up with the idea of laughter being therapeutic while passing notes—and getting caught—in a humor and psychology class in grad school. When we realized that we were both psychotherapy interns over age 35, we began to compare notes on our similar first careers—producer of stand-up comedy shows and improv actress, respectively. We also found that we are both very forgetful, which we both attribute to the fact that Alzheimer's disease runs rampant in our families. So it was natural for us to gravitate toward each other, and to find a way to use humor for healing and coping.

Soon, we were working with cancer patients. But we were worried about it, because we thought, "What do we know from cancer?" The irony of that moment did not escape us when, a few months later, Aviva was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was time to use Humor Heals on ourselves.

Needless to say, the situation was extremely upsetting. Aviva's prognosis was not very good; the cancer had spread throughout her chest and neck. We had no control over anything except our attitude toward what was happening, and we chose humor as our first line of defense. Acknowledging the fact that Aviva's death was a possibility helped us deal with the fear and pain of this new reality. A typical exchange:

Robin: "Aviva, you can't die and leave me to get the Alzheimer's by myself."

Aviva: "Look on the bright side. At least now when I lose my keys I have an excuse—the cancer's spread to my head."

It didn't take us long to realize that so many facets of her ordeal with cancer really were funny. For starters: Having a doctor who was related to Don Rickles; swallowing desiccated bovine spleen as a treatment (makes you wonder whose idea that was!); and discovering that the automated voice barking orders out of the cat scan machine was a dead ringer for Aviva's surly Aunt Bea.

And this is how we coped. Pointing out these absurdities as they were happening provided us with laughter and hope, allowing us to go on. Fewer than five months after her initial diagnosis, Aviva was declared in full remission. We're not saying that we laughed the cancer away, because that would be denying all of the meditation, yoga, acupuncture, dietary changes, herbs, love and prayers, not to mention simultaneous radiation and chemotherapy. What we're saying is that we all have difficulties in our lives and things we can't control. For us, the path through the hard times was to ride our roller coaster of emotions instead of denying them. Acknowledging the pain—and giving ourselves permission to laugh at the things that we were most afraid of—made the hard times more endurable.

Robin: By the way, Aviva would like her epitaph to read "Having a great time, wish you were here."

Aviva: And Robin would love to share hers. But she can't remember it.