Essays

How Comedy Kept Me Going Through Chemo

Stage IV Non-Hodgkins' lymphoma was the last place I thought I'd find comedy again, but laughing gave me power over my diagnosis.

Growing up, I was that kid. Deigned the official class clown each elementary scholastic year, I soon found myself promoted to in-house comedian midway through junior high — a pope-job I kept through high school and a little beyond. Making other people laugh was addicting. It’s something I’d wake up and look forward to every morning. Then, as I got older, I became more serious, as many people do. I stopped making so many jokes. But a good sense of humor is a gift, and it wasn’t until I rediscovered it during treatment for stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that I discovered that gift’s true power.

Cruz Santana.

Because my disease was so advanced by the time of my diagnosis, I ended up spending almost six months shut up in a hospital room, often in terrible pain. Every three weeks, a cocktail of poisons was pumped into me, with the hope of drastically shrinking the malignant tumors housed inside my lymph nodes. I hurt every minute of the day before chemo even began. Once it started, recovering from each session was a living hell. It was the last place I ever thought I’d find comedy again. And it was what I feel helped save me.

A good sense of humor is a gift, and it wasn’t until I rediscovered it during treatment for stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that I discovered that gift’s true power.

It was pain that brought me to the doctor in the first place. After eight years of ignoring swollen lymph nodes, I awoke one morning and found my left leg ballooned to twice its normal size. An untold number of scans, biopsies, and follow-up visits later, my oncologist — ever the realist — gave me a detailed mental picture of what I could expect in my next six months.

It wasn’t pretty. Starting on day one, I’d have a series of procedures in preparation for receiving chemotherapy. Among the items on the list: A central line would be surgically inserted through my chest into my subclavian vein leading into my heart. Then they’d pump me with drugs that are so toxic, they have to ship some of them in glass bottles, because they’d eat through the bag. According to my doctors, I would experience nausea, discomfort, and some disorientation.

“Will any of it hurt?” I asked.

He was blunt: “It will. You have non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And you have a lot of it. But we’ll manage the pain — do all we can. It won’t be bad at all.”

Liar, liar, pants on fire.

All told, on the first day, I had six procedures, including my first ever chemotherapy infusion. When I came to, my chest hurt first: I could feel every bit of whatever form of sorcery had taken place under my skin. Then my leg started aching, thanks to a blood clot they’d discovered. Finally, the rest of me joined in. My skin felt like it’d been covered in bruises. Simply running a hand over my arm sent a bolt through me. Nurses eventually appeared in my doorway armed with syringes of this-and-that, and, oh yeah, pain medications.

Jokes built up beneath the surface. I could hear my mind running through the ways in which being confined to a bed wearing grippy socks and a revealing gown was beyond hilarious. But it didn’t feel like the right time for such a joke, so I held it in.

As the treatment continued, my pain increased in intensity. I was eventually issued my very own PCA pump set to deliver a dose of pain meds every eight minutes with the push of a button. It was enormous. As this Everest of medical-doo-dads wheeled past me, complete with a gigantic LCD screen and looking like the biggest television I’d ever had in my life, my guard went down, and I quipped: “Now, are the dirty channels free on this thing? No? How ‘bout HBO? Still no? Okay, tell ya what… Whose post-coital sandwich do I have to make to make that happen?”

The poor techs about died laughing. I had the room rolling in minutes, and their energy lifted my spirit. With that, strangers became family. Their joy wrapped itself around me, held my ailing body, and loved me through my agony. I can’t even begin to describe how much that helped.

And so it went. Every few weeks for six months, my body was poisoned  The PCA pump took the edge off the painful aftermath, and that’s when I let my guard down, and started cracking jokes to my nurses, doctors, and anyone else in the room who would listen to my twisted sense of humor.

“You should write some of those down, girl,” my nurse suggested during a late-night pow-wow-slash-chemo-sesh.

“Why? They’re not really mine once I they leave me, you know?” I replied. It was my idealistic, self-deprecating side talking. But I started thinking about it. Maybe I should write down my jokes. Maybe they’d help make my kids laugh one day, long after this was over. So I started writing them down, filling composition books with my quips and gags, that went home with me at the end of each stay.

Rediscovering my relationship with humor wouldn’t have happened were it not for my cancer diagnosis

Months later, channeling Fester Addam’s countenance and hairdo, I showed up at a local comedy club for open mic night. Filling out my entry, I hovered over the box labeled “Type of Stand-Up Routine,” and paused, trying to think of something clever. Finally, I gave up and wrote: “The cancer-patient’s kind.” When it was my turn, I was nervous at first as to how my jokes would go over: after all, many people don’t think cancer’s very funny. But my routine killed, and I was even invited back a few times.

A page from Cruz Santana’s journals.

These days, I often revisit those 18 composition books, as if they were a stack of Mad Magazines for the terminally ill. They continue to inspire me: in fact, I recently wrote a speculative pilot script for a dark television comedy based on some of the jokes I wrote down during chemo. And now, as I face a new cycle of chemotherapy sessions, and a bone marrow transplant, I find myself turning to comedy again to help me survive.

Rediscovering my relationship with humor wouldn’t have happened were it not for my cancer diagnosis. Getting sick stripped me of everything–my clothes, my hair, my health–but my sense of humor not only remained, it came back with a vengeance, comforting me and giving me power over a foe I cannot see, but can beat. Especially if I keep laughing at it.