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Humor Your Tumor

This column is dedicated to all individuals (and their loved ones) who are now battling cancer, and to Survivors whose cancer is in remission. I’ll occasionally leave you with a joke. This will usually be related to cancer, or some other source of stress in our lives. If you’ve heard a joke along these lines that you love, and would like to see it made available to everyone in this column, please send it to me at HaHaRemedy@viconet.com.

Humor Your Tumor
April, 2001
Paul E. McGhee, PhD

Using Humor to Cope:

Humor in Concentration/POW Camps

"I would never have made it if I could not have laughed. Laughing lifted me momentarily . . . out of this horrible situation, just enough to make it livable . . . survivable." (Victor Frankl)

"Humor, more than anything else in the human makeup, affords an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds." (Victor Frankl)

Bill Cosby once said, "If you can find humor in anything, you can survive it." Can we really survive anything emotionally if we can keep our sense of humor about it? The ultimate test of this would seem to have been the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. Surely, there was no room for humor in the camps. And yet, psychiatrist Victor Frankl, a prisoner in the camps himself, noted in his book, Man's Search for Meaning, that humor was one of the things that helped people survive in the camps. Finding things to laugh at helped maintain a sense of meaning and purpose in life--even as prisoners saw others dying all around them.

Many survived with the thought that they would one day see a loved one again. Others used their imaginations to create humor. Frankl states that he and another prisoner tried to invent at least one funny story or joke every day. For example, in one joke they created, a prisoner points toward a Capo (a prisoner who also acted as a guard) and says, "Imagine! I knew him when he was only the president of a bank!"

In another frequently told story, a prisoner accidentally bumps into a Nazi guard. The guard turns and shouts, "Schwein!" (which means "pig" in German). The prisoner bows and says, "Cohen. Pleased to meet you." The joke clearly demonstrates how humor helps reverse who's in control and who seems to be the superior being. Even in the terrible conditions of the camp, such jokes provided a means of momentarily overcoming extreme adversity.

More recent detainment camp experiences have confirmed Frankl's observations. Numerous hostages were held for long periods of time by terrorist groups in the 1980s. Terry Anderson, held captive in Lebanon for 2,455 days, describes in his book, Den of Lions, how a sense of humor helped him and his fellow prisoners cope.

"Despite everything, it's amazing sometimes how much laughing we do. Irish hostage Brian Keenan's terrible shaggy-dog stories, John McCarthy's imitations, Tom's [Sutherland] awful puns and drinking songs, Frank's [Reed] tales of Boston. Even the idiotic and frustrating things the guards do set us off in giggles. There's often a bitter touch to it. But not always. Just as often, it's just a relief to be able to laugh at something."

Alan Sharansky overcame his fear of a (threatened) firing squad in the former Soviet Union by joking about it. But he was not successful at it at first. The relief was initially very short-lived, if it occurred at all. But he gradually came to see the power that joking gave him. Real mastery over his fears took 15-20 tries. From that point on, he gained control over his fears, and stopped being at their mercy.

Finding humor in the face of death was called "gallows humor" by Freud. His classic example was of a man who was about to be shot by a firing squad, and was asked if he wanted a last cigarette. "No thanks," he said, "I'm trying to quit." Again, the joke helped the doomed man turn the tables and take emotional control in the situation.

A sociologist once pointed out that over the centuries, many cultures have used humor as a means of dealing with death.1 In India, those doomed to death by fire were expected to laugh while climbing up to their own pyre. Parents in ancient Phoenicia often laughed if their children had been committed to death on the pyre. Elderly parents in Sardinia were expected to laugh when being immolated by their own children. All these practices clearly reflect the belief that laughter can help you master even the fear of death itself.

While you will never face anything like this in your own life, you may encounter sources of stress in your life that feel just as threatening to you. Hearing the words "You have cancer" can often feel like a death sentence being handed down to you. Regardless of the obstacles you have to face, remember that if humor helped Frankl, Anderson, Sharansky and many others in their same circumstances, it also has the power to help you master your own fears and anxieties--about cancer or any other stressors in your life.

[Adapted from P.E. McGhee Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training, Kendall-Hunt, 1999. To order call 800-228-0810.]


1. Victoroff, D. New approaches to the psychology of humor. Impact of Society on Science, 1942, 47, 709-716.


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