By Sam Alexandra Rose
Sam guest blogs regularly for Bowel Research UK, sharing her experiences with bowel cancer and Lynch Syndrome.
I like to joke about cancer. My key worker in the gynaecology department had given me a form to fill in so that I could get free prescriptions, and in the summer my NHS exemption card came in the post. I showed it to Peter, my partner.
“Look at you, rinsing the system,” he joked.
I told my friend Chris about it later, and he commented: “You are deffo cheating the system, going to all this trouble for some free prescription drugs.”
“I know, I think I’ve taken it a bit far,” I agreed with a smile.
The above is the first paragraph of Chapter Six of my memoir, “Gut Feelings: Coping With Cancer and Living With Lynch Syndrome” and it’s one of the first stories that came to mind when contemplating where humour fits into my cancer experience.
The second story is when I had my bowel removed and my sister brought my niece and nephew – then ages ten and twelve respectively – to visit me in hospital. My niece was perplexed that visitors were not allowed to bring flowers into the ward and asked if it was because the patients would eat them. It was my first good laugh since the operation, but a fit of the giggles and being less than a week past abdominal surgery did not mix!
On another occasion before going into surgery I quipped that the person squeezing my arm to try to wake up the vein and put the cannula in was “making me feel like a tube of toothpaste”. As I say in my book, “I was the patient making the anaesthetists laugh right before they put me under. Where would we be without humour in those darkest moments?”
So why is it so helpful to have a sense of humour when going through a cancer experience? A 2020 study into the importance of humour in oncology found that out of 199 patients surveyed, 157 said humour decreased their anxiety and 122 revealed they frequently or always used humour when dealing with their cancer.
The study suggested that humour helps patients improve relationships with healthcare professionals, and instils some vital hope and joy.
Other studies also indicate humour can boost the immune system and improve overall health for cancer patients. But there’s more to it than that. A 2014 study suggested that humour actually enhances problem-solving ability, while also facilitating the communication of difficult topics. And something I really relate to, it helps people to regain their identities – which is a very important issue for many people living with and after cancer.
To some, writing about the role of humour may seem like a trivial concept in the face of a life-threatening illness, but these studies prove otherwise and show that it could be an important part of patient care.
Speaking personally, as far as coping strategies go, humour is one of my main means of keeping the gloom at bay. My sense of humour is a huge part of my personality so making a joke about my illness often helps me feel more connected to my identity, despite frequently feeling like cancer hastaken it away.
Using humour, , especially dark humour, is not without risk and it can offend. And because everyone is different, what one person finds funny someone else won’t.
I’m all for poking fun at my own experiences and I know many people who are the same. If it helps get us through the day, there’s no harm – if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry, right? Plus, cancer simply deserves to be made fun of. As long as we’re not mocking or criticising other people or being inappropriate, humour can be a great tool when going through any kind of trauma.
I fully advocate everyone talking openly about their experiences in whatever ways feel right for them, and that includes sniggering at our stomas and making puns about bums.