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What’s So Funny About Cancer?

by Mack Dryden

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Comedian and two-time cancer survivor Mack Dryden

I’m a comedian and a two-time cancer survivor, and I make people laugh about my experiences with the disease until their faces hurt. Unusual job, true, but I want to convince people that it’s not only okay but also a duty to laugh if you’re touched by cancer.

Coincidentally, I was first diagnosed around the same time that Norman Cousins made headlines with his groundbreaking research into the healing power of laughter. Baffling scientists, he literally laughed a deadly disease into remission and became living proof of the quip “He who laughs, lasts.”

Numerous studies since have shown that laughter releases healing chemicals in the body, and that negative emotions, such as depression and anger, activate harmful ones. So when I was diagnosed, I figured I’d be the dumbest comedian on earth if I didn’t stay positive and try to get as many laughs as possible.

“Well, I’ve puked up about everything,” I croaked, “but I think I found my class ring.”

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photo by Bill Aron

I joked through both of my cancer ordeals because I thought it was the smart, practical, and definitely most fun thing to do. Frankly, I can’t think of a single situation where having a negative attitude is the smart thing to do. I came across so many arguments against being depressed and miserable that I decided to spread some “Tumor Humor” instead, and the rewards have been incalculable.

One day when I was throwing up, a nurse asked how I was doing. “Well, I’ve puked up about everything,” I croaked, “but I think I found my class ring.”

Her exuberant giggles were like a shot of morphine for me. Suddenly I was the caregiver making her feel better, and my reward was feeling better myself for a few precious minutes.

Comedians are often criticized for “below the belt” humor, but that’s where “The Beast” attacked me. When my doctor informed me that I would lose a testicle, I told him I wanted a second opinion before I relinquished one of my personal favorite organs: “I’ve gotten attached over the years.” He chuckled and said, “Keep that attitude; it’s going to help.”

The day before the operation, he asked me if I wanted him to implant a plastic prosthesis so I would look the same. That struck me as a set up for a joke: The same to whom? “Of course, Doc,” I said. “I don’t want this to affect my modeling career,” causing him to snicker. He obviously wasn’t used to being entertained by his patients, and his face nearly cracked every time I made him giggle.

After finishing treatment, I figured I had already had my cancer experience and was now home free. So imagine my surprise when three years ago during a routine eye exam, a malignant melanoma was found on the back of my eyeball. My surgeon knew my history and laughed when I said, “I’m having no luck at all with these round organs.”

He sewed a radioactive button on the back of my eyeball. I lost most of the vision in my right eye and was quarantined from my family for a week. When he removed the button eight days later, he asked me how my week had been. “It was kind of fun being Radioactive Man,” I said. “I could glare a Birdseye frozen dinner into a hot meal in 30 seconds.” He tittered. “My X-ray vision only seemed to work on the mailman, which was disappointing.” He chuckled. “But I found if I stared at the dog long enough, I could make her butt itch, a lot of fun.” He guffawed and noted that the treatment obviously hadn’t diminished my sense of humor.

“No,” I replied. “Not bad for a guy who’s half blind and half nuts.” He laughed again, and it felt good to give something back to the man who had saved my life.

If your life is touched by cancer, laughter should be part of your regular therapy. Don’t think you’re funny? Jot down jokes that make you laugh, save e-mail funnies, take note of amusing things your kids have said. Laughing – and making others laugh – will make you feel better. And everyone you touch will be grateful for your precious gift.

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Mack Dryden is a comedian, actor, and writer who has appeared on numerous television shows and was a staff writer for Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. He brings hope, inspiration, and laughter to thousands every year and speaks at numerous cancer survivor celebrations.

Get a laugh, a video excerpt, and Mack’s contact information at MackDryden.com.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2009.