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Surviving Incurable Cancer With the Help of Humor

by Jeffrey NeurmanPatient, LeukemiaJuly 9, 2019View more posts from Jeffrey Neurman

The Help of Humor

Six years ago, soon after the birth of my second son, I acknowledged my 40th birthday. (I say acknowledged – and not “celebrated” – as I do not know of anyone who ever rejoiced at the notion of hitting forty, even if it is the new 30, which I never heard anyone getting excited about either for that matter.) As I had thus completed another full decade of life, and because I now had two children and a wife (along with a dog and two cats) who at least partially depended upon me, I thought it best to have a physical.

I was not experiencing any problems other than perhaps the weight I had gained during my wife’s pregnancy – her morning sickness was in direct conflict with my thriftiness so I just could not let those meals go unfinished. I expected to merely be told to try and shed the gestational girth, drink a tad (or more) less and then be on my way.

Of course, that is not what transpired. My overly thorough doctor decided to run, and re-run, some unsatisfying blood work, and the results kept coming back with way too many white blood cells. I am not a doctor (although my wife fortunately is), but even I knew that too many of such cells is often a sign of serious trouble (or what may be among the most serious trouble of them all) – cancer.

And cancer it was indeed.

I saw several oncologists who all readily confirmed that I did in fact have a type of blood cancer – a leukemia that actually acts more like a lymphoma, but I have no idea why that matters or even if it does or, frankly, what that even means. All I knew then – and largely to this day – was that I have cancer. I left my neurologist wife to talk to these oncologists about the details.

Part of my rationale for not knowing more about my life-threatening illness is that I am especially ill-suited for cancer. I don’t say this because I think so highly of myself. Rather to the contrary, I am highly self-critical and have always been an anxious person. I foolishly had decided years earlier to go to law school and then work at a major Wall Street law firm, a series of professional choices that does nothing but cultivate one’s sense of unease and uncertainty, not to mention self-loathing. So adding an incurable form of cancer to the mix was really just piling on.

Being diagnosed with cancer was not for me an opportunity to count the many blessings I did have and wake each day full of vigor and just happy to be alive. Pollyanna I am most definitely not. Instead, I am what one might call a pessimist, which we pessimists pronounce “realist.” Consequently, if I am to survive this disease, it will not be due to the power of my positive thinking.

For the next four years after the receipt of this most unnecessary diagnosis, I was what cancer sufferers often refer to as “W&W”, which I learned means “watch and wait” (or wait and watch, I never can remember). My life was a series of intervals of roughly six months between debilitating or outright paralyzing run-ups to oncological tests where my future would seemingly be determined by the vials of blood withdrawn from my veins.

To make matters worse, as my bone marrow (which is where those useless white cells come from – who knew?) continued to ramp up production, the windows between these dreaded doctor visits became smaller and smaller. As with so many things cancer-related, there is constant conflict. In this particular situation, as the white count went up, the time between visits went down. Of course, white blood cells are generally a good thing, but in the world of cancer, cancer makes the rules.

The best we can do is to try and figure them out, something at which we are getting better but I fear maybe not better fast enough. (As further evidence of how cancer defies what we otherwise know to be the rules of life, in what other realm does one get more of something by division? But cancer can do that. It’s like the laws of math do not even apply to it. It’s not the “Emperor” of the disease world for nothing.)

Eventually, my white blood cell count attained a level that would cause other non-oncologist doctors I saw to try (and fail) not to look horrified as I revealed the latest numbers. The other problem was that my lingual tonsils, which are the lesser known cousins of the tonsils we had removed as children in a Faustian bargain for “all the ice cream you can eat!”, were growing dangerously large. So large, in fact, that my former ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) took one look at those tonsils and exclaimed, “Oh Wow!!! I have never seen tonsils that large! Not even in a medical textbook!”

Rather than risk further uncontrolled outbursts from members of the medical profession that did nothing to bolster my self-esteem or my self-tabulated chances of living, I underwent several rounds of chemotherapy, which, while it fortunately slayed hundreds of thousands of white blood cells, was hardly what I would call therapeutic.

So now here I am. In remission, but for how long no one knows. What we do know is that there is no cure for this cancer, so it is a pretty safe bet that the cancer may return. We could find out if that eventuality was more likely by my undergoing another bone marrow biopsy, but I try to limit the drilling of bones in my ass with a hand-bored instrument to once every few years. Plus, there would be nothing that could be done anyway. Just more cause for worry, and I believe I have established that I am already highly proficient in that area.

Despite all of this (or perhaps even because of it) I have surprisingly found something of value to me as I continue on this most unwanted of journeys – humor.

It is not that cancer is the least bit funny; it absolutely is not. It is, instead, horrifically terrifying. But as I became overwhelmed with all of these fears and anxieties about my life – or its potentially premature conclusion – I found myself using my sense of humor and ability to poke fun at so much of what is so frustrating and fear-generating about cancer to be my salvation.

By finding humor in so much of what I was experiencing – the constant testing, the well-intention but clod-like friends and family members, the generally accepted norms of living with cancer and what is thus expected of a cancer sufferer – I was able to disarm this disease to a large degree and make it something that I could co-exist with.

And the beauty of it is that cancer is the gift that just keeps giving – every time I think there could not possibly be more to make fun of or more humor to be uncovered in this ongoing struggle, an impolitic relative or an incompetent insurance company will so graciously supply me with reams of new material.

It is my hope that by writing about these very common, but nonetheless very odd, experiences I can share with others who are facing similar challenges a sense of community and understanding. And hopefully a good laugh or two.

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