Kernels of humor in a tragic cancer story

I didn’t always recognize its importance. I mean when I was younger, I thought that being attractive, slim, athletic, articulate were sure-fire antidotes to one’s suffering a life of mediocrity. I just never recognized the value of something I took for granted, my sense of humor. And then life happened.

When I was 36, my husband (who was older by 12 years) was diagnosed with lung cancer. Inoperable, incurable, his type of cancer meant that he had only months to live. Oncologists at the hospital devised a protocol for him: Every month he entered the hospital for a seven-day cisplatinum infusion drip, delivered via an intravenous tube mounted on a 5-footed device that could be wheeled around, if he felt up to any kind of exercise.

That usually wasn’t the case, as the treatments made him violently ill. He generally lay in his hospital bed, where I could almost see the chemo oozing out his pores. I visited him, following my work day, trying to take the edge off those punishing treatments, injecting humor into a scenario where there was little. (Ultimately he succumbed to the disease.)

The regimen was tough. These chemo warriors stayed in the hospital for their seven-day treatment, recovered at home the following week, had a week off, and returned to the hospital the fourth week, to begin, the punishing cycle anew. Such a plan wrought havoc with patient psyches, for each time they returned to the hospital for the next round, they discovered some within their group had succumbed to their disease in the interim. Depression rode alongside hope.

When my husband began the process, his roommate, Joe, had already weathered five rounds of this treatment, trying to stop the ravages of liver cancer. He lay in the neighboring bed, white sheets snuggling his skinny frame; he was all of 90 pounds. The toll on him was all too evident.

Every afternoon, Joe’s wife, Maria, arrived at around 4, following her part-time job at a local market. Like the dutiful Italian wife she was, she kissed him upon entry to the room and then got out the tools of her trade. She opened a tin of “meat-a-balls,” set up the portable pot she kept in Joe’s clothes cabinet, and proceeded to bubble them until they were piping hot. The aroma wafted down the hallways. And what would have created gustatory anticipation anywhere else provoked just the opposite on the cancer wing of floor 4 at Roger William Hospital, in Providence. Here, patients pumped full with chemo concoctions reeled in their beds, nauseous with the fumes; they simply couldn’t stand Maria’s good intentions.

Since my husband was one of those reacting, I had to gingerly approach her and ask her to stop, but she had trouble understanding, since Maria knew of no earthly malady that couldn’t be cured with a well-oiled meatball. At the same time, I made mental pictures of patients hurling themselves out of hospital windows rather than endure Maria’s Italian marvels. It was situational humor I enjoyed in a sea of depression. But even this would be eclipsed by a funnier episode, an event that might seem ghoulish to those unfamiliar with a cancer ward.

One Sunday morning, I sat, talking quietly with my husband. Hospital wards are usually devoid of bustle on Saturdays and Sundays, when most medical procedures are suspended. Since Joe’s bed curtains were drawn shut, I surmised that he awaited some nurse’s attention. Suddenly, an army of people in formal attire filed into the room, and gathered about Joe’s bed. One of them yanked open the bed curtains, while Joe jerked forward, eyes blinking wildly. When he noted his entire family, dressed all in black, surrounding his bed, he haltingly asked, “Did I … die?” All at once, the relatives gesticulated wildly, trying to calm him, speaking Italian that seemed to suggest: “No, you’re still of this world.”

Apparently, they had all come from another family member’s funeral and decided to visit him, since they were suited up. But, they doubtless marked him the next family member to exit this world and thought it perfectly reasonable to pay their respects, before the final event.

Cancer is never funny, which is why we who endure its ravages look for small kernels of humor in any situation. Without it, awful reality descends, paralyzing us and robbing us of any joy. I know that on those wards, patients and visitors opt for any mirth to break up the steady diet of horror, whether it be a little old Italian lady who, ironically, almost kills patients with her “meat-a-balls” or a decidedly human parade, readying for their next funeral.

Happily, there’s no such thing as political correctness on the cancer wards; we’re just all in the human stew together, praying to get on with life … any way we can.

Colleen Kelly Mellor blogs from the perspective of a chronic patient at Encouragement in a Difficult World: Biddy Bytes Blog.

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