Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Chemo # 2, Laughing About Death

I had my second dose of Navelbine + Herceptin today. I slept through the drip, about an hour and a half, and woke up feeling a bit groggy again, but not nearly as much as last week. After I left the clinic, I went out for a big lunch with a friend, then went grocery shopping for a few hours and felt fine. I didn’t feel any pain or discomfort until dinnertime, when I felt a dull ache near my right shoulder blade, a few inches in. From what I remember of Biology class, that’s where my right lung is. But I haven’t felt any more sharp, stabbing pains in the chest since the chemo this morning.

Today was a great day. My friend Michelle has come up to see me from Australia. Josie had her first day at school and she had fun. I ran into a funny lady at Chemo Club and had a nice chat with her. I also met another lady who was diagnosed at Stage IV, whom I’d been trying to get together with for a while. Unfortunately, she arrived at Chemo Club just as I was falling asleep so I nodded off on her. Oh well, if anyone will understand, she will.

I ended the day with a nice dinner and a walk by the lake with Tony and Michelle, two of my favorite people in the world. And I felt energetic and strong throughout the day (except for the nodding off during chemo). I felt good about getting chemo. I want to attack those cancer cells full force. In fact, I think the dull ache in my back was the chemo killing the cancer cells. I don’t know if this is what people mean by “visualization”, but I like to imagine those cancer cells running screaming like the guy in the Edvard Munch painting.

The best thing about the day was that I laughed a lot. I made jokes about death and dying. I’m not sure if this is the right thing to do for most people, but it helps me see death as less terrifying.

I have a friend who has an unusual fear of death. All her life, she’s had panic attacks about death. She told me that when she was a little girl, her grandmother died and nobody would talk about it. She asked her mother about it once and her mother freaked out and punished her. So she grew up with this feeling that death was a terrifying thing that could not even be named. Kind of like Voldemort in the Harry Potter books. So all her life, she’s had anxiety attacks about “that-which-shall-not-be-named”.

I once read a story in someone’s Blog about learning about cancer and death. The guy remembered when he was eleven years old and was at a friend’s house. This friend’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer. She was vacuuming the carpet and the guy’s friend ran over the power cord and his mother yelled at him, “Hey! Be careful! When I’m dead, there won’t be enough money to buy a new vacuum cleaner!” The Blogger said this was the first time he’d heard anyone speak about death so casually and it took the heaviness and scariness out of it. And that was in those days when people referred to cancer in a very low whisper as “the C word”. That-which-cannot-be-named. Voldemort.

I think death is one of those things that we fear so much that we try not to think about it, talk about it, and certainly not joke about it. I mean “we” as in most-other-people-in-the-world. But not me. I think we magnify the things we fear if we fear even speaking about them. But if you talk about it, joke about it, and confront it face-to-face, a great deal of the terror and anxiety falls away. Cancer or no cancer, we’re all going to die someday. It’s the one thing absolutely everyone has in common. So why can’t we talk about it and joke about it? If you can’t laugh about cancer and death, what CAN you laugh about?

Of course, all this applies to your OWN death. There was a famous French comedian in the ‘80s who did comedy routines about every taboo topic you could imagine – homosexuality, race, religion, handicapped people – if it was offensive, he’d do jokes about it. But toward the end of his career, he started making jokes about cancer patients and that was when the critics said he’d crossed the line. You can joke about dykes, Arabs, and cripples, but absolutely not about cancer patients. After he died, it was announced he’d died of cancer. So all that time he was offending everyone, he was actually confronting his own fear of cancer and death.

Making jokes about race, religion, and other sensitive topics is a privilege of the person who is a member of the group being offended. Only a Black comedian can joke about or even SAY the word “niggers”. Only a gay man can joke about “faggots”. And only a cancer patient facing death can joke about dying. But we can all laugh at the Black man’s and gay man’s and the dying man’s jokes because they’ve done us a favor and taken some of the fear away for us.

Even young Harry had the right idea. He kept saying Voldemort’s name, to everyone’s horror. Voldemort, Voldemort. Voldemort. Cancer, cancer, cancer. Death, death, death. See? Not so scary.

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