HEALTH & FITNESS
First, You Laugh
Humor helps ease one woman's fears after being diagnosed with breast cancer
Several years ago, my friend Peggy Gilbert and I decided to write a book. We had a name for it -- "First, You Laugh" -- and a snappy subtitle, "1331 Simple Steps for Using Humor to Cope with Cancer." We'd read Betty Rollin's pioneering breast cancer memoir, "First, You Cry," written when the words "breast" and "cancer" were whispered, not spoken out loud. Our co-authored memoir would not be about tears.
Peggy moved to Seattle before our plans materialized, and two months ago she died, though not from cancer. I've no plans to write that book alone at this point, but as I type this essay I picture my friend, and she is smiling.
In 2001, a week before Thanksgiving, I suspected I had mastitis, a breast infection. Since I unerringly diagnosed my own ailments, I wasn't surprised when Dr. White concurred. But antibiotics didn't ease the pain and swelling, so she sent me off to a surgeon. Dr. Bowles' instincts further confirmed my diagnosis, but ... just to be sure, he performed a delightful procedure called a "stereotactic core biopsy."
That biopsy involved being "shot" five times with a device closely resembling a noisy pneumatic staple gun (only a man could have invented such a contraption), but instead of staples, the gun injected hollow needles. Each needle's core brought out tissue samples that the laboratory technicians would use to further verify my self-diagnosis.
But those uncooperative lab people chose, instead, to report a tumor chock full of cancer cells so evil and crazed that they were busily dividing themselves at 70 to 80 times each replication!
Dr. Bowles phoned with news of those mutants: "I really don't like the looks of this. Come in today at 3, and bring your husband if you can."
I'd feared those words for years, but when they finally came, instead of crying or feeling a sickening dread that would dominate the rest of my life, I silently uttered this prayer: "Dear God, please give me enough time to clean my messy linen closet before I die, so nobody will see it!"
Looking back on that ridiculous petition, I smile, as I do when I remember my husband's participation in the conference with my surgeon.
"Yes," Les said, "we want surgery as soon as possible," and, "Yes, we're sure that a mastectomy is our only choice with cancer this aggressive."
Ordinarily, I'd have said, "We? We want this?" but on that day, I found his presumption endearing. He was going through every moment and every emotion with me, and fortunately for me, most of this has involved "us" ever since.
I also recall feeling relief that day -- the "other shoe falling," to use a cliché. Because my mother died of breast cancer when I was 9, I'd anticipated that each mammogram would detect cancer. All were negative, including the one I'd had a month before the biopsy, but Dr. Bowles' words made me think, yes, it's here now. Something known, not hiding. I can fight it now.
There were no tears but there were other surprises. I wouldn't have believed that two days after surgery, on Thanksgiving morning, I'd be home replying to my concerned friends' e-mails and listing the many things I was thankful for.
I could smell our turkey roasting, the traditional Thanksgiving feast being prepared by my older son, Evan, who'd decided that I wouldn't be "tossing turkeys around" that day. I started off with that blessing, then wrote:
"I'm grateful for funny things, as well. We just agreed that the turkey has 'white meat,' not 'breasts,' today, and I told the kids I was thankful for at least five separate people in pre-op who confirmed that the 'right side' was, indeed, the right side to remove.
"When my friend Dorothy told me earlier how the operating room would be 'enshrouded' with light and with healing prayers from all my friends, we laughed when I offered an alternate verb, 'blanketed.' We also considered the possibility that I might list to the left after the surgery, but never having been a Dolly Parton, I'm still pretty much in balance."
"We just agreed that the turkey has 'white meat,' not 'breasts' today, and I told the kids I was thankful for at least five separate people in pre-op who confirmed that the 'right side' was, indeed, the right side to remove."
—E. Shan Correa
E-mail to her friends
If I'd had time that day, I might also have written about Eloise, who, instead of flowers, sent me a book. The novel was written by another friend, Marcia Preston, and though Ellie was sure I'd enjoy it while I recuperated, she sounded worried when she phoned, saying, "I've ordered Marcia's new book for you, Shan, but I'm really sorry about the title."
Poor, dear Eloise! The novel she'd ordered for me was called "Perhaps She'll Die."
I might also have noted another friend's consternation when I lamented, "I guess my tassel-twirling days are over." I could tell from her face that she took my joke seriously, at least for a moment. "Oh!" she said then, "you weren't really a stripper. Of course not! Were you?" I vowed to not use that line again.
On that Thanksgiving morning, I could have e-mailed about my sons' reactions to my cancer diagnosis. They'd coped in different ways, but after the first shock and sadness, both found reasons to be optimistic.
Evan, my "turkey tosser," welcomed being able to help. To "do something." He also reported talking with friends after work, saying one girl said that having a mastectomy wasn't all bad: "Does your mom know she can get a free boob job if she wants? Both sides, even!"
Naturally, I feigned shock at hearing this. "What a dreadful thing to be discussing about your sainted mother!" As we giggled, I felt the laughter helping us both.
Brandon also reacted with action -- not cooking, but praying. He's a super "pray-er," and informed me that his entire church was sharing his prayers.
"You're No. 2 on our prayer list," he said.
"Only No. 2? How can I get to be No. 1?"
"That's our pastor's grandmother. She's dying. Believe me, Mom, you don't want to be No. 1."
I know with great certainty that prayers guided my surgeon, hastened my recovery, gave me strength and made me appreciate my family and friends even more than before. I know, too, that allowing a bit of "gallows humor" into the equation made others feel less awkward, and less afraid for me.
I've just read an article on the role of humor in the healing process. I know its findings firsthand. Laughter is both healing and life-affirming. By healing, I mean more than just the release of healing endorphins in the brain that researchers are analyzing. Something about laughter heals the soul, unites you with others all over the world and makes you treasure being alive.
After my five-year checkup recently, my oncologist said once again, "Everything's looking normal, Mrs. Correa."
That word, "normal," has become my favorite word in the English language. I hope to hear it for many years to come. And I hope just as fervently that researchers will conquer these nasty, mutant cells soon so that others can lead normal, laughter-filled lives.
Until then, laughter will help me through whatever comes. It helped my friend Peggy, who, in my memories, was seldom without a smile.
E. Shan Correa is a Hawaii Kai-based writer whose articles on cooking appear monthly in the Star-Bulletin food section.