American author Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. . . . I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” Humor has the ability to sooth and heal, and humor often makes grim situations feel brighter and less daunting. Moments affixed with tragedy, grief, loss, and terror can often soften in time, allowing for understanding, acceptance, and sometimes even laughter.
That process is no different with a life-changing diagnosis like cancer—at least it wasn’t for Alice Meltzer. Meltzer, the mother of ONS member Nina Abelowitz, RN, MSN, CNP, dealt with her breast cancer diagnosis the only way she knew how: by looking for humor in a dark place. During her experience as a patient, she would jot down her thoughts, ideas, and humorous reactions to the absurd world of oncology.
Abelowitz, an oncology nurse practitioner in the greater Boston area, collected her mother’s musings on cancer in a collection of comics called Laughter Is the Best Medicine. Meltzer lost her struggle with cancer, but Abelowitz hopes to share some of her mother’s levity and laughter with patients and providers who may find solace in her words.
Coping With a Cancer Diagnosis
“My mom originally had a ductal carcinoma in situ diagnosis about 17 years before her recurrence,” Abelowitz said. “She was treated with radiation and tamoxifen. Unfortunately, after her initial diagnosis, she had a recurrence discovered at stage IV, and the cancer spread to her brain.”
During Meltzer's treatment, she would—like many other patients with cancer—spend time reflecting on her situation. As someone who had never experienced life with an illness, she coped with her diagnosis the only way she knew how.
“My mother was always very healthy, and I think it took her for a trip when she started experiencing the side effects related to chemotherapy,” Abelowitz says. “Having been an artist with an interesting sense of humor, I think she was so shocked by what the chemo was doing to her body that this was the best way for her to express herself.”
Abelowitz knows that humor has always played a big role in her mother’s personality and their relationship together. With her recurrence, Meltzer was facing a terminal diagnosis and the realities that came with it, so she turned to laughter.
“We never really took ourselves too seriously,” Abelowitz says. “We have always been really sarcastic and see things in a lighthearted way. She used to make jokes, and we’d laugh together. I think she coped with her terminal diagnosis by finding the humor in it. She knew she had a brain metastasis and that her life was going to be cut short. Honestly, I don’t think she could cope with it any other way.”
In her final years, Meltzer focused on her humorous ideas and comical interpretations of living with cancer. She began the process of putting a book together. Abelowitz remembers that it was one thing that helped her mother keep her mind away from her terminal illness.
Collecting Her Mother’s Words
“Ultimately, my mom died when I was nine months pregnant—seven days before my son was born,” Abelowitz remembers. “I wasn’t able to attend her funeral. I was so close to giving birth and, since she lived in Miami Beach with my father, I wasn’t able to make it down from Boston.”
Before Meltzer's decline in the final year of her life, she started working with another family member to create illustrations for the book. Abelowitz did her best to offer support and encouragement for her mother, especially when it seemed that others were questioning it.
“I didn’t become an oncology nurse until after my mother’s passing, so I wasn’t able to offer the good ideas like she had as she was going through it,” Abelowitz recalls. “I supported her and encouraged her ideas, because a lot of people questioned her work. They wanted to know why she would laugh about chemotherapy and cancer. They weren’t very supportive. It’s ironic now, because, so far, the book has been well received.”
After her mother’s passing, Abelowitz collected the work her mother had done and proceeded with publishing the book.
Spreading Smiles to Those Who Welcome It
For many, it may be difficult to see the immediate humor in a cancer journey. Abelowitz is no stranger to the tragedy associated with it. However, she hopes—as did her mother—that the book helps at least one patient or provider cope with the feelings associated with their diagnosis, to help them understand that it can be okay to laugh at the silly things.
“I think the book is important for validating people’s thoughts around the things they feel and see in the doctor’s office or during chemo visits,” Abelowitz said. “One particular comic stands out—never argue with a bald woman on steroids—and I think things like that resonate with some people’s feelings associated with treatment. I hope it helps some people take a more lighthearted approach, if that’s what works for them.”
When patients are facing a difficult challenge, every smile counts for something. Whether they’re trying to decipher the names of multisyllabic medications or worrying their wigs might blow away in the wind, Meltzer believed it was important to laugh at the little things. Laughter Is the Best Medicine is currently available at the website www.laughterismedicine.net and will be available through Amazon in February 2018.