Cancer is Funny comes out in paperback this week. Get a copy!
Here’s a fun piece I wrote during the bad old days. I eventually reworked it for the book’s introduction. It’s funnier here:
Since my diagnosis in the winter, I’ve spent these past months frequently posting reflections about my disease, my treatment and my doctors.
It’s only fair, I reasoned, to offer my caregivers a voice. Here then, with his permission, are some recent notes from my oncologist, taken from a recent email thread between us.
Dear Rev. Micheli,
Having received your recent email requesting further literature regarding stem cell transplants, I clicked on the link to your blog (www.tamedcynic.org) displayed beneath your signature line. I must have missed it in your previous correspondence. Once I clicked over, I discovered your cancer posts from the past six months. You can appreciate, I imagine, how a blog about your cancer is also, viewed from another light, a blog about your caregivers.
In particular, I wish to take umbrage with your post ‘Pastors Make Bad Patients’ dated 3/10/2015. While I’m certainly not going to argue with your central thesis, I do contest your suggestion that healthcare workers have no sense of humor.
Look at it from our side.
Your treatment, for instance, is many months long and you’re here almost daily, yet nearly every day. when the nurse tech grabs your index finger in order to place the pulse-reading oximeter on it, you pass gas. A gag I previously thought was known only to my late Uncle Jerry.
Now that I’ve read your comments about ‘sharting’ in your post ‘Eternity’s the Wrong Number’ dated 2/27/15, I think such a joke is as unwise as it is immature.
S_________, the nurse tech, who saw you 4 times this week, enduring your finger-pull fart joke each time, would like you to know she already takes care of 2 juvenile boys at home and does not care to babysit another one at work.
Quite simply, it’s not professional. You’d never make fart jokes as part of your ministry or preaching career would you? Certainly not, I think.
I hope you’ll see that it’s not the case that we lack a sense of humor; rather you need to view your behavior from our perspective.
For example, it’s true chemotherapy dervies from Nazi era mustard gas; however, your habit of singing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, Uber Alles’ while receiving your infusions unsettles many of our patients. Not to mention, the nurses tell me that some of our obese patients think you’re insulting them when you sing ‘Uber Alles.’
Speaking of unsettling patients, I ask that you no longer blow in to the tubes of your chest port and pretend you’re inflating an airplane life preserver. Perhaps it was funny the first time, but you’ve noticed, I assume, how many of our patients are elderly and yesterday you upset quite a few of them who failed to realize that they were not, in fact, on an airplane and were in only minimal danger of crash-landing.
My office manager reports it will cost several hundred dollars to repair the damage incurred when those confused seniors clawed and pushed each other out of the way, vainly searching out parachutes and oxygen masks, before- bravely, I must admit- hurling themselves over the counter and through the nurses’ station beveled glass window.
They’re not called the Greatest Generation for nothing.
I think this proves that some ocassions and places are not suitable for humor, cancer being one obvious example. Oncology is serious, sometimes melancholy, work, much like ministry I’d wager.
As you yourself must know, being an expert with scripture, the gospels do not ever note that Jesus laughed. Not once. Not at anything.
I also recall from the Sunday School of my youth how St. Paul in several places admonishes the faithful against silliness, joking and laughter.
You need only walk into any church on a Sunday morning to find Christians earnestly abiding these very scriptural precedents. It’s in this sense that I encourage you ‘to practice your faith’ in our offices.
I consulted with my colleagues, per your request, and while we do not enjoy Ellen either we have chosen not to show Breaking Bad on the infusion center telesvison screens. We agree Breaking Bad offers an instructive portrait of a patient with cancer, but we feel the content might otherwise be in poor taste.
We’ve also decided, per your earlier query, not to show Joel Osteen either in the infusion center. Apparently, some patients took offense at what they sensed was your mock sincerity whenever you asked the nurses to ‘turn the channel to Pontius Osteen.’
Dear Rev. Micheli,
Your blog has become quite popular around the offices.
Dr A____________ recently read your post titled ‘Chemo Sissy’ dated 2/24/2015 in which you describe him as ‘Serbian scary’ and comment that it’s ‘easy to picture him wearing a drab, olive uniform, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and standing behind one-way glass while a lieutenant conducts an ‘interrogation.’
Dr A__________ would like me to point out that, contrary to your characterization, he hails from Milwaukee by way of Mumbai and that he is not a veteran of the Bosnian-Serbian conflic- though he does think Owen Wilson’s work in Behind Enemy Lines is criminally underrated.
Thank you for bringing that term, Docetism, to my attention. Despite all of my schooling, I confess it was new to me, and I admit that if the the Christian creed teaches that God became fully human in Jesus then it follows logically that Jesus laughed and most likely ‘farted, stank and picked his nose’ as you so eruditely put it.
I will concede that it’s true Jesus must’ve laughed and possibly even that St Paul, as you phrased it, ‘…had a hyssop stuck up his a@#.’ Nonetheless, it’s also true that not every ocassion is one for joking.
Think of Mark Twain’s maxim:
Comedy = Tragedy + Time
Most of our patients do not have enough time removed from cancer to laugh at it. Indeed many fear, as you know yourself, that they don’t have the time left they’d always thought they did.
And, without time, it’s hard to laugh.
I didn’t study as much philosophy as you in school but I do recall how Aristotle says that someone who laughs at the wrong thing reveals not a bad sense of humor but a bad character.
I’m not implying you have bad character, I’m merely suggesting that Aristotle is helpful in pointing out how there are right times and wrong times for attempts at humor.
When you unbutton your shirt to give our nuses access to your chest catheter, it’s probably not a good idea to sway your hips seductively and go ‘Da, da, da, da, dummmmm….’
Not only does this give our staff the wrong impression, we’ve since received several complaint calls from elderly women who were disappointed, ‘after being misled,’ to be informed that they would not receive a special screening of Magic Mike during their chemo infusions.
Along those same lines, it’s true we put lollipops in the bowls at the front desk just as it’s true I recommended you wear a straw fedora in the summer after you lost your hair; nevertheless, I would recommend you no longer say ‘Who loves you, baby?’ to the nursing staff.
Kojack has been off the air since 1978 and Tully Sevalas died 22 years ago, and I fear your innocent celluloid allusion could be misconstrued. I would not want sexual harassment claims to pile up alongside your medical insurance claims.
I mentioned your blog and our exchange to J________, one of our receptionists. She attends one of those megachurches where the music sounds like Richard Marx and the pastors all look like extras from Portlandia. She asked me to pass along this quote to you:
“Tears bind us to God not laughter.” – John Chrysostum, 373 AD
Nurse K_______ requests you stop asking if every bag of your chemo ‘contains bits of real panther in it.’
It does not.
Dear Rev. Micheli,
To answer your question, yes, itching is to be expected after receiving multiple blood transfusions- especially when one palms the prophylactic Benadryl rather than ingest it so as to continue playing Star Wars Angry Birds unburdened by drowsiness, as the nurse tells me she saw you do yesterday.
Thank you for sharing your, ahem, abundance of opinions on John Chyrsostum with me in your last email. At your request I’ll pass along to J_______ at the front desk that John Chrysostum ‘was a loathesome anti-Semite’ though, considering the genre of church she’s chosen, such news is unlikely to prove an obstacle.
To answer your other question, no, I cannot give you ‘the digits’ of those elderly patients who confused you for Channing Tatum nor do I have a clue as to whether they have any daughters about your age. However, I do empathize with you when you say that laughter reminds you you’re still alive. While I don’t have the experience to know whether or not you’re correct in saying ‘that Christians tend to take themselves more seriously than God,’ I believe I do understand what you mean when you say that being deadly serious lately makes you feel like you’re already ‘(seriously)’ dead.
I must admit I prefer the quote you forwarded from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (‘Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.’) to the John Chrysostum quotation, and I will concede that if God is best characterized by joy and if suffering leads people closer to God, then suffering should lead also to laughter. I won’t go as far as you, however, and concur that ‘de Chardin’s logic proves Twain was a dumb@#$’
I’d never heard of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin before. I had to look him up on Wikipedia! You’re definitely a learned man. Incidentally, it’s been 6 months since we started treating you. I think you can now stop bringing your framed Princeton diploma with you to your appointments, transfusions, infusions, and blood draws. It may violate appendix 3.2a of the Hippocratic Oath but my colleagues and I have decided that we’re willing to cede that you’re the smartest person in the room.
Even the smartest people, it seems, make mistakes. Just to clarify for you, that’s a lower case ‘d’ prescribed on your chemo schedule for Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
It’s not a lowercase ’s.’ It says ‘dex.’
It’s short for dexamethasone.
You’re right, it is difficult to read when we write it by hand and then Xerox it. Please apologize to your wife for any misunderstanding and inform her that I would never prescribe such a thing without first consulting her.
To answer your postscripted question about your penis. Yes, it’s completely normal and about 4-8 weeks.
Dear Rev. Micheli,
While cancer, not religion, is my area expertise, I daresay you’re correct when you suggest that Christians too often fetishize suffering, thinking all suffering must offer a teachable moment simply because Jesus suffered.
The quote you forwarded from Simone Weil provides, I think, a helpful corrective. I think she’s right that before one can have a spiritually significant experience of suffering one must have a prior (spiritually significant) experience of joy.
I’m out of my depth here, but isn’t this what the gospels mean to convey by telling their narratives from the point of view not of the cross but of the resurrection?
I’d never heard of the ‘Disappearing Dove’ trick you say was once popular among comic magicians though I bet it was funny when the handerchief (after being ‘released’) just lay there on the ground, not moving, not flying away, not disappearing. Not a dove at all.
Your point’s well taken- sometimes what makes something funny, painfully funny, isn’t the punchline that’s provided but what’s missing- the absence of something we’ve grown to count on and expect.
And certainly I can understand, Jason, that so much of what you’re experiencing now is just this sort of absence: an absence of health and maybe hope, the missing reflection in the mirror, the now absent plans replaced by a future I’m sure feels as certain as a handkerchief ready to fly.
I have enough experience to know as well that, usually, those who find such absence funny are the ones feel most what’s missing. In other words, if it’s possible for cancer to be funny, then its because of you called the ‘comedy of absence.’
Speaking of absence, one of the elderly patients who hurled thrust themselves through the nurses’ station glass, thinking the office was headed towards a crash-landing, asked me to pass this joke along to you:
‘What’s the best part of Alzheimers?’
‘You get to hide your own Easter eggs.’