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"Gotta Laugh" by Teedie Kimbrell

First, let me say there is nothing funny about cancer. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to ever hear that word about yourself, you know how devastating it is. It even takes your breath away to hear someone else has it. It is a somber, life changing one syllable word. It is the ultimate insult. So, how do you stop cancer from gaining the upper hand? What do you do to not drown in a sea of tears? Maybe, just maybe, odd as it may seem, you find a way to laugh right in its face.

Just like a thief in the night, cancer sneaks into your house and at its own pace begins to take what it wants from you. Like a riptide in the ocean, it is a force so strong it can pull you under and hold you down against your will. It can make you fearful, anxious, depressed, and so very angry. It is a powerful and potent poison, and is capable of changing the course of your life forever.

Teedie Kimbrell and Robert Chang a year and a half ago during her treatment

I know all of this because I was diagnosed with breast cancer a year and a half ago. Although I had had problems with breast cysts in the past I certainly never expected a cancer diagnosis, and especially not at the age of 45. After I got over the shock of the diagnosis I was to put it mildly, irate. I had maintained a healthy, fitness-oriented lifestyle, had great nutrition, had done everything you are supposed to do to stay healthy, and here it was. Not fair, not fair, not fair.

After it set in that this was what it was, and I accepted the course of treatment that was recommended, I made the decision that it, the cancer, had already taken too much. It was going to take a piece of my body and it surely would steal a few thousand tears along the way, but it was not going to have my spirit. It may have zapped me temporarily but it was not going to get anything else from me. Its sole purpose was destruction and it was not going to destroy me.

Every emotion you can think of shows itself when something like this happens. Anger, fear, resentment, sadness. All of these bubble to the top and flow out of you like a fountain. The one emotion that does not even show up on that list is amusement. After all, to say “cancer” and “laughter” in the same sentence sounds like heresy. How could something so awful be the least bit funny? How in the world could there be anything to laugh at when you have cancer? Obviously, cancer itself is no laughing matter. What I discovered through my personal journey however, was that some pretty funny things do present themselves, and if you don’t find a way to find humor in them, then the cancer gets one more thing that it does not deserve. As the great American philosopher Jimmy Buffett said “ if we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” So, strange as it might sound, I decided if nothing else, ya gotta laugh.

My first peek at God’s sense of humor was my bald head. Bald was not my best look. Not by a long shot. Thank goodness I have a nice round head with no obvious dents or craters. I did however, have a couple of moles on my scalp I didn’t know existed and which thankfully were and are covered now by a thick head of hair. As anyone who saw me bald will tell you, if they are honest, I needed hair. I wanted to be a female Michael Jordan and pull off the look with panache, but it was not to be. Of course I was sad my hair was gone but I had to laugh at my new-found cue ball look. I will admit the laughter came after the tears. The tears that flowed freely when the hair started coming out by the handfuls and I had to acknowledge that yes, this awful thing was happening to me. The laughter came when I put on a hat to warm my bald head and realized that when it was tucked behind my ears and pulled up slightly on top I looked just like a Keebler elf! I mean I looked like I had just stepped out of a tree after a long day of baking cookies! A five foot seven inch elf! I, like a lot of women and men, spent a fair amount of money on haircuts and color. Well, not after it fell out. I must have saved at least $500. I figure that’s the universe’s version of give and take. Take the hair, save a few bucks.

Another time I was dragging myself out of the bathroom, feeling worse than bad. It was after a treatment and I didn’t even know if I could make it back to my bedroom. By now I had lost ten or so pounds and was walking a little hunched over. As I steadied myself by holding on to the sink, I glanced in the mirror and looking back at me was a reflection of what I thought I would look like in thirty or forty years. And guess what? It was a bald little old MAN looking back at me! Not a little old woman, but a little old man. A bit like Elmer Fudd, to be quite honest. I thought, “Oh my God, I’m my brother at 80!” As bad as I felt, I had to smile. Resembling a little old man, now that’s something to look forward to, don’t you think?

Chemo is poison. They give you poison to kill the poison. It’s such a bizarre concept that I had to find laughter in it or the chemo would truly poison me, and I was not going to give it that kind of power. So I found humor in what I call “my chemo defense” and my “cancer defense.” Mine was not the legitimate “chemo brain” that many suffer the effects of. That involves real memory and concentration problems and is an acknowledged phenomenon. No, mine was more the cover my ass defense! Every stupid thing I said or did I blamed on the chemo or the cancer. Said something out of line or a bit insensitive? “Oh, must be the chemo.” Didn’t do this or that? “Oh, well I have cancer.” Did something really stupid? “Oh, it’s the chemo!” Keep in mind the majority of these things were things I’ve done forever. I’ve been misplacing my keys for twenty years, but now I had an excuse for why I couldn’t find them--must be the chemo. I hate, hate going to the grocery store. Always have. Now I had an excuse not to go. Let the laundry pile up, well of course because I had cancer. While my “C” defense worked for me at the time, I don’t seem to be able to get away with as much now!

Teedie Kimbrell and Robert Chang at our Everest send-off party on March 22, 2005

Other humorous tidbits-there’s no need for deodorant, something to smile at. No need to shave your legs or under your arms, something to smile at. No more waxing or plucking for a while, something to smile at. Money saved on shampoo and other hair products, something to smile at. Being told you look like a Buddhist nun, something to be proud of and smile about. It’s all temporary, I’m happy to report, but definitely worth a smile.

Cancer is part of my life now. Just like all the other pieces of the yet unfinished puzzle. It fits in somewhere. Is it a road I would have chosen? Certainly not. I was forced to accept this challenge, and I would not wish it upon another living being. But it was my path to walk, and I survived it. Survived it, in part by laughing at it whenever possible. Eve Ensler, when asked how important it was to balance the very serious and the comic in her work replied, “I know when people are laughing some part of them opens. Humor is the key.” It’s that open-minded part that allows us to fight, to survive, to beat back the monster and move forward. It is laughter through tears. It is laughter through pain. It is laughter that pulled me through.