Black Humor

Cancer isn't funny, but sometimes all you can do is laugh

Reprinted with permission from "The Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer and Back," published by Random House.



you?" I would hear this refrain 10 times in a morning, each time the phone rang. No one realized I'd already delivered the report a half dozen times that day, or that I was at my desk trying to hang on to the semblance of a working life. Sometimes I had to stretch for news. Frequently, nothing was happening. Most often, cancer is boring, like a tedious second job that demands extreme amounts of drudge work, time, and patience.

I hated when I got cast as someone's soap opera. If the interest was vicarious, the concern made me recoil. "I'm fine," I'd say, and be exasperated when someone would insist, "No, really. Tell me. How are you?"

I was exasperated a lot. Partly I was to blame, being much too judgmental of responses. It took me forever to understand that we were, all of us, winging it. My friends and I were young. We hadn't yet moved into middle age, with its repetitions of illness and loss. We weren't practiced. It wasn't my fault or theirs if I was the virgin, the test case. But if I was being made an example of, so they were to me, for we are all of us examples to one another, all the time, during crises and while in the muddle of the commonplace. Looking back, I think that the kind and the cruel (and there were a few of those) were, in one regard, equal. Though in different guises, they appeared as teachers, and what they both taught me about was love.


From the kind, I learned about love for others.

From the cruel, I learned, the hard way, about love for myself. In a few stinging instances, I had to decide that if I was ever going to love myself, I would have to be selective in who could come near. Until I became sick, I didn't know that some people really could be cruel to the point of evil.

In between the kind and the cruel, there were the bumblers, and in retrospect, I love them the best. They were there, I think, for respite.

"God speaks through events," the theologian Frederick Buechner writes, and during cancer, I was treated to a few divine comedies. One time the humor was of the black, battlefield variety, the kind that, in cancer support groups, keeps things rolling. "There's someone I want to fix you up with," a woman, a writer and shrink I'd met only once before, said over lunch. She'd called because my new boss had asked her to. She'd had cancer once. He thought she could help.

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Katherine Russell Rich
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