During periods of hardship, laughter can lighten the load. Cracking up may be a better option than breaking down, or so the recent publications of three young adults with cancer suggest. Somewhat discomfiting, the jests of these authors serve as an antidote and alternative to the despairing negativity or fake positivity that plagues patients like me. Their punch lines zing with pleasure that offsets the pain of their edgy insights.
In Nina Riggs’s memoir “The Bright Hour,” she tells of commiserating with a friend who is also dealing with triple negative breast cancer. They imagine starting a business called Damaged Goods, which would sell a line of morbid thank-you cards:
“Thank you for the taco casserole. It worked even better than my stool softeners.”
“Thoughts and prayers are great, but Ativan and pot are better.”
“Thank you for the flowers. I hope they die before I do.”
“All your phone messages about how not knowing exactly what’s going on with me has stressed you out really helped me put things in perspective.”
“Xanax is white, Zofran is blue, steroids make me feel like throttling you.”
At 37, Ms. Riggs was told she had “one small spot” of cancer that, despite aggressive treatment, quickly spread to her bones. Inspired in part by her great-great-great-grandfather Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ms. Riggs ponders “how simultaneously cruel and beautiful this world can be.” In the process, she resembles her mother who liked to joke about her own terminal disease, “Dying isn’t the end of the world.” (Some readers may recall Ms. Riggs’s Modern Love essay “When a Couch Is More Than a Couch,” the response to which prompted her to write the memoir.)
In lyrical passages of “The Bright Hour,” Ms. Riggs recounts her grief at the death of her mother from multiple myeloma; the support of her father, whose purchase of a motorcycle must have issued from a death pact — “over my dead body” — with her mother; and the loving intimacy of her husband and boys, who are poignantly portrayed as they reel through sunny and shadowy patches. This network helped Ms. Riggs rise to meet the challenge of her ancestor, Emerson: “to cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body, and to become as large as the World.”
Teva Harrison, 37 when given a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, satirizes treatment in a graphic memoir, “In-Between Days.” To receive radiation aimed at a tumor on one vertebra of her spine, Ms. Harrison had to be positioned on a mold fitted to her body and then further immobilized by shrink wrap. In her drawing “On a Platter,” she feels like supermarket sushi which, she writes in the accompanying prose, “would be so fascinating if it just weren’t happening to me.”
“In-Between Days” tackles the early onset of menopause. Doctors — making it sound “like no big deal” — did not prepare Ms. Harrison for its frustrating consequences. After an oophorectomy, the removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes, she suffered from vaginismus, painful contractions of the vagina especially during sexual intercourse. She tries to give other women a sense of agency by illustrating how she alleviated the condition by means of workouts with dilators.
According to Ms. Harrison, cancer tests our cherished beliefs and finds us wanting. A vegetarian, she had always opposed experimentation on animals. But in a clinical trial, she finds herself relieved that her drug was tested in vivo, probably on cats and dogs. By mocking what she calls her hypocrisy, the cartoon “Animal Testing Y/N” reminds us that cancer can surface our desperate longing to sustain life by any means.
Animal testing is the subject of one of Max Ritvo’s more eccentric poems in his posthumous collection “Four Reincarnations.” Mr. Ritvo, who died at age 25, had been given a diagnosis at 16 of Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare pediatric cancer. In “Poem to My Litter,” he considers the rodents injected with his cancer cells and with AIDS to ensure that they could not fight the tumors off. Researchers subsequently try out chemicals on them that might ultimately work on him.
Within this study of mice and men, Mr. Ritvo pictures the litter as his kids. Though he first named them Max 1, Max 2, “now they’re all just Max”: “No playing favorites.” They seem “like children you’ve traumatized / and tortured so they won’t let you visit.” Toward the end of the poem, swelling rage and fear cause the poet to identify with his brood. He too is caged, his pride gone along with his fur.
“But then the feelings pass” and “nothing happens to me,” he writes. The poem concludes with a tongue-in-cheek swipe at cancer’s capacity to erode our faith in confident assurances from higher-ups:
And if a whole lot
of nothing happens to you, Maxes, that’s peace.
Which is what we want. Trust me.
As Max Ritvo knows, the gap between what we want and what we get cannot be bridged by the avuncular language at hand.
Devoid of self-pity, cancer humor proves that raging fear passes, when transmuted through ironic camaraderie — with friends or prospective readers or lab animals — into emotional clarity. The gift of these creative works: They foster a sense of community with the living and also with the dead. We are not alone in what we go through.