Finding Humor in Life While Facing Cancer
How do you develop or maintain a sense of humor when battling something like cancer? Cancer survivor and comedian Scott Burton explains the importance of a sense of humor, how it can get us through even the toughest times, and how it comes in as many forms as those who enjoy its gifts.
As someone who's job is bringing humor to those on every level of battling cancer, I hear quite often from nurses, caregivers and fellow survivors that they agree: "When battling cancer, you simply have to have a sense of humor."
On some level, they are right. But to say you must have humor to someone who doesn't feel comfortable making jokes or to whom humor is a foreign concept suggests they are doing something wrong. It is, in some way, chastising them not doing something they don't have or never occurred to them. You might as well say, "To face cancer properly, you really need to have a good set of spoons."
I believe the best way to communicate humor is to help others recognize the humor they do have.
We all can acknowledge that humor is a gift. But, contrary to what many believe, humor is not a gift in the sense of being purely God-given. It is true that some people have a greater penchant for expressing humor than others, but it is a mistake to believe that, because you don't exercise your sense of humor constantly, you don't have one. The truth is everyone has a sense of humor. It's just that, like people themselves, humor comes in all shapes and sizes. The trick is knowing what kind of humor is right for you.
In reality, the person who has a hard time breaking a smile or seeing the lighter side may be no more humor-impaired than the person who feels the need to make a joke at every opportunity, regardless of who else finds it funny. In both cases, neither is recognizing that humor is a gift much better suited for giving than receiving. If humor is used to either draw attention to one's self or serve as a challenge for others to crack your façade and "make" you laugh, both are viewing humor from the receiving end.
Humor from the giving end recognizes its purpose to encourage the recipient to feel lighter, to release, to accept the gift of laughter (not for them to see how funny you are) and, conversely, allow for another to shine—"humoring" them in a positive way as they communicate.
We, however, tend to look for something more. Sometimes, the greatest stumbling block to an average person expressing their sense of humor is looking at someone like Jerry Seinfeld or Red Skelton (depending on your generation) and despairing, "I'll never be that funny." And you're probably right. You never will be. But should you?
Using humor as a gift recognizes that it's okay. You don't need to be that funny. One angle is using your humor to allow those "funnier" than you to lighten your heart, especially during a heavy battle such as cancer. The flip side is for you to then let your humor touch the hearts of others who see even less opportunity than you to laugh, to help them feel comfortable. It's a perfect circle.
Also, keep in mind, Jerry Seinfeld didn't get to where he is solely by being funny. There was hard work, direction, and being in the right place at the right time. For all we know, Mr. Seinfeld is merely one or two lucky breaks away from being that annoying guy at the water cooler.
"And what's with the pointy bottoms on the cups? Did this use to be a Sno-Cone stand?"
"Yes, Jerry. Very clever. We need to go back to work now."
It's all relative. There is no absolute standard. Everyone has a different sense of humor.
Finding humor in life while facing cancer is daunting enough. To not feel you have humor then "need" it during this time is truly formidable. So, coming from someone who's embraced humor all his life and through his cancer battle, I'd say we all "need" to start at the beginning. We "need" to see that the most universal and accessible sense of humor is nothing more than a ready smile.
Start with a smile and laughter won't be far off. A smile is, in many ways, a building block to all senses of humor. It is a gift that opens the door of the heart and, whether it is about humor or not, what greater feeling is there than touching another's heart -- especially while facing cancer. A smile—genuine humor—is a potent tool for reaching that deep. And, therein lies the delightful paradox of humor; only when used as a gift does one reap its greatest reward. Medical scientists can cite all sorts of technical reasons why humor is important, but the simple truth is, you use it because it makes you feel good, no matter what level of humor you use.
Genuine humor works completely from the inside out. It is a nebulous entity, changing every time you use it. Humor is not a noun that you can keep in your pocket and take out to show at parties. It is present in every little thing we do and, to some degree, requires us to pay attention in order to spot the opportunity to kindly illuminate it for others.
The only constant or standard is: In whatever form you find it, humor is contagious. A smile begets a smile. A laugh begets a laugh. The true gift of humor is that it is a gift that keeps on giving. And it's available to us all.