Humor, Rhymes With Tumor

By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Cartoonist Miriam Engelberg is hardly the first to recognize cancer's comic potential. Columnist Erma Bombeck and comedian Gilda Radner mined that territory before her. A Google search for "cancer jokes" produces millions of hits and examples such as this: "What do you call a person who has a compulsion to get lymphoma over and over again? A lymphomaniac."

But by taking such humor into the realm of cartoons, the author and illustrator of "Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person: A Memoir in Comics" (Harper) makes it edgier. Engelberg drew the first in the collection of about 50 cartoons in 2001, while waiting for the biopsy results that confirmed her cancer; later entries deal with the cancer's spread to her brain. (She didn't need the recent uproar over depictions of Muslims to prove cartoons' capacity to shock and disturb.)

Any joke about cancer is by definition dark humor. But Engelberg's irreverent alternative to the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" approach is insightful, unflinching and painfully, painfully funny. No topic is so delicate as to be off limits -- from loss of libido to loss of hair. While some of Engelberg's cartoons take on big topics (coming to terms with death's inevitability, wondering whether there's an afterlife), others play with life's smaller issues: "Is it okay to play the cancer card with telemarketers?" the "Miriam" cartoon character asks. To which you might reply: Are the snickers that this produces healthy?

Research hasn't yet proved that laughter can play a role in curing any disease, despite the case laid out by Norman Cousins in his 1979 book, "Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient." Richard Penson, the clinical director of medical and gynecological oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital, notes that there's "woefully little literature" on the relationship between cancer and humor.

Penson was the lead author of an article that appeared in last September's issue of the journal Oncologist, "Laughter: The Best Medicine?" The current consensus, he says: Humor has little effect on disease outcome, "but it can make a huge impact on the quality of life while living with cancer."

Disease-centered humor is not for everyone, acknowledges Allen Klein, who began writing about humor and illness after losing his 34-year-old wife to a rare liver disease. Klein, author of "The Healing Power of Humor" (Tarcher, 1989) and "The Courage to Laugh" (Tarcher, 1998), says that life-challenging matters such as cancer "are not funny in themselves, but funny things happen" during their course.

"Some people see the humor in life, but for other people, life is a drag. They don't see the funny parts in it. That's no different in death than in life."

Sick Humor

In Engelberg's cartoons, the Miriam character (who looks pretty much like the real Miriam, she says) can be counted on to skewer the platitudes and banalities that mask the patient's raw experience. In one riff on patient educational brochures, Miriam holds a cheery booklet and exclaims, "I was dreading chemo, but now that I can associate it with this lovely beach scene I'm looking forward to it!"

In another panel -- more honest than funny, and meant to resonate with anyone who's suffered well-meaning but nosy inquiries from friends and strangers -- acquaintance after acquaintance asks Miriam if she has "a family history" of cancer. (She doesn't.) "They all want assurance that they're safe," thinks Miriam.

The humor speaks to more than fellow cancer patients. Ever endured an MRI? Says Miriam, "I never quite trust that MRIs are an actual medical procedure. I picture the Monty Python team out in the control room making sound effects."

Is Engelberg concerned her cartoons might offend -- or that some readers might find them too callous? Not greatly. She's aware that her humor won't suit everyone, she says, but she maintains that people who do share her worldview need something to read, too.

Cancer survivor Lawrence Calhoun, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says humor like Engelberg's can be useful in creating a sense of community among cancer patients. As with other groups under stress, such as police and medical emergency personnel, he says, "the 'in' group may develop ways of coping that involve poking fun at people outside the group." Their humor "to an outsider may sound cold," but it can help people deal with the particular stresses their group faces.

Peter Sheras, an associate professor of psychology and a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, says cancer patients' ability laugh at things they wouldn't previously have found funny helps them to cope and feel less isolated.

Engelberg confessed, via e-mail, that she wrote the book more for her own sanity than for other people's comfort or amusement.

"Of course," she added, "I love having other people connect with my comics, because it makes me feel less alone, but if I sat around and tried to imagine what other people needed, I'd never get a cartoon done."

"See," she adds, "I really am shallow; it's all about me!"

Readers can check Engelberg's blog and view recent cartoons at . ยท

Jennifer Huget is a frequent contributor to the Health section. Comments: See more Miriam Engelberg cartoons at the same site.

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