(Here’s the blog post I was working on last week when I realized that I needed to write something about mom’s last day of cancer treatment.)
One of the main saving graces of this experience has been that I never lost the ability to laugh. Now of course, when mom and I first began this journey there was no humor or laughter. There was nothing but shock and sadness. I can’t even begin to describe what it felt like. We walked around like zombies for weeks as we were shuttled from doctor-to-doctor, test-to-test and the cold hard reality that yes, it was cancer began to sink in.
Like all patients and caregivers, we didn’t have a clue about what to expect about anything as words like bilateral mastectomy, bilateral lymphadenectomy, chemotherapy and radiation were hurled at us like dodge balls. But we couldn’t dodge these balls and instead we were forced to catch each one and hold on it until a medical professional took it away from us. The main difference is that none of these medical professionals was out to get us. It wasn’t like those days in gym class when those on the opposing team would hurl a dodge ball at you with everything they had in hopes of not only hitting you, but hurting you. No, the slams these balls made hurt without any effort from anyone, even when they tried to lessen the blow.
That’s just how it is when you’re dealing with cancer.
That said I would have been completely conquered if I’d allowed myself to stay in that down miserable place. What’s worse is my mother would have been conquered too, because she was relying on me to help her and be strong for her. I expressed my overwhelming sorrow in my short story “The Lie,” and for a while there all of my fiction was about how devastated I felt, but the time came when I realized that not only were my readers probably getting tired of all my tragedy, but so was I.
I’ve never been one who had a high tolerance for people who seemed caught in the tragedy or bragged about every tragedy of their lives. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had a tough life or perhaps it’s because these folks are often obnoxious. Either way, I don’t want anything to do with them.
When I used the services at the local Rape Crisis Center some years ago, the group I was in called people like that “professional victims.” Now perhaps that isn’t exactly an original label, but at the time, it was for me because I had known people like that my whole life.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not a hard-hearted person by any means. I have sympathy for those going through tragedies or life crises. For me, the term “professional victim,” is reserved for that select group of folks who for whatever reason choose to stay in that place. True, there are victims—I have been one myself at various stages of my life—but there are those who choose to keep that mantle of victimhood on themselves and never move on no matter how much help is offered to them.
I used to know a woman who could turn any situation into a tragedy and herself into a poor victim of such. You could literally say (I know this because this actually happened) that it was a lovely sunny day, and she would say that the sun burned her eyes. People like this are vampiric in nature. Their constant need and neediness to stay in a place of victimhood will wear you down until you either choose to leave them alone—as I did or allow them to suck the life out of you. Granted this woman had suffered real tragedy in her life, but—and a big butt coming here—the difference between the two of us is that I chose to do the work of moving forward, while she didn’t. I can’t imagine how I would have survived my life as a survivor of abuse, let alone taking care of my mom now if I hadn’t.
I suppose you’re wondering when I’m going to stop talking about tragedies and victims and move on to the laughter. Well, here goes.
It was during one of the many days of pre-surgical testing when we were preparing for mom’s double mastectomy and we were all scared and didn’t know how to process our feelings. Mom had joked in the past about wanting her breasts gone, but this was different. She hadn’t wished cancer on herself; she was just tired of having big, saggy breasts. My friend Sue had come with us to one of my mom’s pre-op tests. The surgeon was marking the areas on mom’s breasts where the lumps had been found when Sue suddenly said the following; “Hey doc, it looks like she has the furniture disease, her chest has dropped down into her drawers.”
Corny joke yes, but it was the first laugh we’d had in a long time and it felt good to be able to do it. We have since told that joke and have received mixed responses from broad laughs to uncomfortable silences. In other words, there are those who laugh with us, those who remain silent and those who tell us that it’s just gallows humor. The third group is the worst of the bunch since they would rather dissect the situation than allow us to find whatever joy we can to get through it. Clearly, my favorite group is the first one, because really this is our experience to get through whatever way we can. I don’t believe its gallows humor at all, but just the pure joy of being goofy, along with the gift of being able to find humor in odd places.
The other time we had a big laugh was when we were bringing mom home after her mastectomy. She stood next to me as I helped her put her coat on and I suddenly noticed that her posture had improved without her breasts. We laughed then too and we’ve laughed many times since. I think the ability to laugh has helped us remain emotionally healthy not to mention that it has helped to lighten the mood at times. I should note that I’m not talking about laugher through tears, which has always sounded fake to me. What I’m talking about is laughter in its purest most wonderful form.
Now obviously, there are moments when we don’t feel like laughing because dealing with cancer and undergoing cancer treatment are scary things, but mom and I have given ourselves permission to laugh. We laugh about how mom and some of the other women we’ve met love being boob-less after mastectomy or about how the doctor’s never warned them that when they said their hair was going to fall out that it included their pubic hair as well. There are jokes about women spending exorbitant fees to have their pubic hair removed, jokes about the day they realized it had either fallen out or grown back in and so it goes.
I could say something about what happened to mom in this instance, but I would be killed.
I’m not writing this to insist that my way of getting through cancer treatment and cancer caregiving is the only one that works. Each of us has to find what works best in our given situations and with the people who fill our lives. For mom and me, humor worked, because if we had allowed ourselves to remain cloaked in tragedy it would have made everything worse. Mom’s chemo treatments were bad enough without the jokes about exploding diarrhea or baldness. They would have been that much worse if we hadn’t found some way to lighten the mood. It may be different for you. Just the same, remember that it’s OK to laugh sometimes. It can lift your spirits and the spirits of those around you, and it can help you heal. After all, doctors have found that a person’s disposition can affect how they get through cancer treatment and recovery. In other words, laughter is beneficial for you. So, if you can, try to find some way to embrace it, even as you deal with some pretty awful symptoms and overwhelming fears. Don’t allow others to stifle it or treat you as if you somehow needed their permission for your lightheartedness. As we all know, there are dark days in this journey, but for me, the key is remembering that I don’t have to focus all of my energies on them. I can chose to find light in darkness. I can choose to laugh and my mother can chose to laugh, and it’s OK. It’s like we’re both thumbing our noses at cancer and letting it know that while it has taken some things, it hasn’t taken everything and we get remain as always have been, our loveable goofy selves.