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Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer

by Jim Higley

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Cancer isn’t funny. And I wasn’t doing any laughing the first few days after I received my confirming biopsy results.

Sunday was the surprise call from my doctor.

Monday was the day of research.

Tuesday was meeting with the doc­tor to finalize plans.

Wednesday was sharing the news with friends.

By Wednesday night, after the word got out, I had nearly 30 messages on my answering machine at home.

Each message was a carbon copy of the previous one. Jim, I just heard what’s going on. I am so sorry. But I know you’ll be fine. You’re strong. I know you’re buried right now, but call me when you can. And let me know if there is anything I can do for you.

Finally, I found something that made me laugh.

These were messages oozing with love. I knew and appreciated that. I just found the quantity of calls funny. Crazy. Unexpected. Who gets 30 messages? Was I really going to call people back? And what was I supposed to tell people to do? There were probably so many things I did or would need, but I didn’t have a clue at that moment. What I did have was the return of my warped sense of humor.

For those of you wondering what you can do, I’m now registered at Crate and Barrel, Eddie Bauer, and the local hardware store.

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Jim Higley

I’ve got an idea, I thought to myself. Maybe I could tell all these people there is something they can do! I’ll tell them I’m registered! Brides do it. Even grooms do it. Why can’t a sick person?!

The absurdity of my idea made me laugh out loud. It was as if the release valve on a pressure cooker was finally opening up, and a bunch of steam was spewing out into the air.

I could only imagine the confusion on people’s faces if they actually heard this silliness. Most would know I was teasing, of course. But I’m sure a few people would be stumped – especially if I did a new greeting on my answer­ing machine:

Hi, you’ve reached the Higley house. We’re swamped with all this cancer crap. For those of you wondering what you can do, I’m now registered at Crate and Barrel, Eddie Bauer, and the local hardware store. Thanks for your concern!

So maybe that was good for a quick chuckle and a little escape. But the truth was, I was scared. 24/7 seriousness is draining. It feels like a constant beating with a stick.

Initially, the idea of laughing was hard to even imagine. I’d see funny things on television or in the newspaper and know I should laugh, but I couldn’t. It’s really hard to laugh at the outside world when your own world is crumbling.

But when you are raised with the gift of laughter, as I was, it can’t stay suppressed forever. It’s too powerful. Thank goodness for that. I eventually could see bits of “ha-ha” in my own life. Certainly not in the cancer, but in the mind-blowing circumstances that suddenly consumed my life. And laugh­ing at parts of those experiences made me feel a little more alive.

The funniest part of it all was that the more I allowed myself to laugh, the more therapeutic my tears became.

Both ends of the spectrum of emo­tions had meaning.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Jim Higley is a writer, speaker, father of three, and prostate cancer survivor. His weekly column, “Bobblehead Dad,” is published in the Chicago Tribune’s TribLocal. To learn more about Jim, visit

Jim shares an electronic version of his book free of cost with anyone going through his or her own cancer journey. E-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and include the type of eReader you have to receive the electronic file.

Excerpted with permission from Bobblehead Dad: 25 Life Lessons I Forgot I Knew, by Jim Higley, copy­right © 2011 by James R. Higley. All rights reserved.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2012.