Learning to Laugh When Facing a Serious Prognosis
Cancer treatment is no laughing matter. To be frank, it sucks. Patients hate it. Caregivers hate it. There is no way to sugarcoat how difficult it is to go through surgery to remove an organ, or to have radiotherapy for weeks on end, or to struggle through chemotherapy for months or years. Yet few things will help make the process more tolerable than being able to face it with a good sense of humor.
It's Not Always Easy to Laugh
Laughter in adverse situations does not come naturally to everyone. But sometimes recognizing the absurdity of our own situations is the best way to retain sanity and develop a positive outlook. The process may be slow, but it may also be quite worthwhile.
In order to laugh at a patient's own situation, it requires facing the challenges that lie ahead and acknowledging their inherent difficulties and uncertainties. This can be scary because it requires a bit of peeking into the unknown and reflecting upon many "what ifs."
Humor is a very personal thing. Learning to laugh does not necessarily mean going for the easy punchline or making a joke out of a serious or painful situation. The old chestnut, "a tumor walks into a bar," might work for some crowds, but being able to laugh and maintain good humor does not necessitate crass one-liners or call for rim-shots. If a patient or caregiver is going to joke around, knowing the audience is always important. This is especially true when the topics may be emotionally charged, and those emotions may not be fully processed.
Shifting Our Perspective
Part of this involves finding a way to acceptance regarding a patient's individual journey. Letting go of "what might have been" and adjusting to "what is" requires a shift in perspective. But finding the way to this altered view allows for the release of a heavy burden. Patients may carry residual guilt about things they have left unaccomplished or (perhaps needlessly) unresolved responsibilities or obligations to others. With such a burden gone, the emotional state of the patient should be lighter, more open.
Part of this acceptance, too, should be an understanding of a patient's own fallibility. Weaknesses, once understood, can become a source of strength. They are also a good place for each of us to look within and take some joy in recognizing our own humanity.
Attitude Can Change A Lot
A poor personal outlook is sometimes associated with a lack of patient will to complete treatment. When a patient consistently fills his or her head with the idea that treatment is too hard or too pointless, it should be of little surprise that there is no fortitude to continue. And while there may be no clinical measure by which to say that a glass-half-empty view harms a patient's medical prospects in terms of whether a drug works when properly ingested, a happy and optimistic patient is less likely to avoid taking medication with the knowledge of difficult side effects to come.
Attitude is meaningful with regard to patient success. It does not require poking fun at one's own situation or having a laugh at anyone's expense. But it does help to be able to find light in the darkness and shine it into even the deepest shadows.
After all, the more serious the challenges we face, the more we need to focus on the joy within to ease our journey along the way.
Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.
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