Using humor to cope with cancer conversations

by George Root

Image for article on using humor to cope with cancer. Photo of two beautiful happy Asian girls friends having a good time together.

When you're diagnosed with cancer, you'll find out who your real friends are. Let the fakers go and stick to your tribe.


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The day I was diagnosed with stage four kidney cancer was one of the most devastating of my life. But after a week of crying, I suddenly realized I wasn’t going to allow cancer to define who I was. I wanted to make cancer a part of my life story, but not the overriding theme. Using humor to cope with cancer was going to be key to making this happen.

“It is difficult for people who do not have cancer to talk to those of us who do. No matter who you are, that initial diagnosis can feel like a death sentence.”

It is difficult for people who do not have cancer to talk to those of us who do. No matter who you are, that initial diagnosis can feel like a death sentence. But when you actually start battling, you realize that your chances are much better than you thought. After all of the treatment I went through, I expected to know a lot more about my condition than I really did. But cancer study is so dynamic that the patient never really knows a fraction of what is going on. However, that does not stop people from initiating potentially uncomfortable conversations that can sometimes lead nowhere.

Educating my family and friends

One of the more touching aspects of getting cancer was realizing that my family and friends were just as concerned as I was. I had surgery about two weeks after my diagnosis and was home for a few weeks to recover. While I was recovering, I started having conversations with my friends that made me realize how little I really knew about what was going on. One of those conversations sticks in my head to this day.

My friend: “So what is next?”

Me: “I heal and then start chemo.”

My friend: “You mean radiation and losing your hair and everything?”

Me: “I am not sure.”

My friend: “How can you not be sure about your treatment?”

Me: “I wish I could tell you.”

The conversation ended at that point because my friend realized I felt backed into a corner. But I walked away from that conversation realizing I was so terrified of what was going on.  And that I was not asking nearly enough questions. After that point, I asked my doctors a lot of questions, and I still do.

Using humor to cope with cancer

When you are faced with a disease like cancer, your mind immediately puts in defense mechanisms that are natural to your personality. After my fear started to subside, I turned to my sense of humor to keep a level head. To this day, my sense of humor has allowed me not to have to take any medication for depression or anxiety stemming from my cancer for any extended periods of time.

Read moreDon’t ask a coworker any of these 10 awkward questions about their cancer

My mother is a little old Polish lady who has religion as her defense mechanism. I despise religion, but I will talk to her about it because she is my mom. The first short conversation I had with my mother the second after I was diagnosed will stay with me forever. My wife and I, tears in our eyes, just walked out of the oncologist’s office and we told our son and my mother what the doctor had said. My mother started crying and initiated a short but memorable conversation.

Mom: “You need to go see a priest.”

Me: “No mom. I am not dead, and a priest is not trained to cure cancer.”

She never responded to that, and we have not talked about it since. When I write it down, my answer seems really abrupt and self-assured. The reality is that telling my mother I reject her only defense mechanism in times like this was extremely difficult for me to do.

I Don’t Want a Benefit

One of the things no doctor or specialist will tell you when you are diagnosed with cancer is that you will lose a lot of money. You will lose time at work, you will have to pay some bills (even if you have insurance) that will cost a lot, and you will start to feel the financial pinch almost immediately. My wife and I do not have any money in savings, so we wound up in a tough spot after about six months.

Through all of it, I refused any charity. But there came a time when my family needed help, so I swallowed my pride. When I finally relented to my friends’ request to do a benefit, I got involved in a conversation I never expected.

Me: “Fine. We need the help. What kind of benefit are you thinking of?”

My friend: “We are going to put together a day of hockey games at the local arena, do auctions, bring in celebrities, take donations, and have a great time.”

Me: “What? How long have you been planning this?”

My friend: “Since you first told us you were sick.”

Me: “I don’t believe it.”

My friend: “Oh, and the mayor is going to sign a city declaration naming the day of your benefit after you.”

Find your tribe, let the fakers go

I couldn’t talk anymore for a while after that. There is one thing I have always maintained about getting cancer that still holds true today. You will find out who your real friends are, and you will find out who has been faking. Let the fakers go and stick to the people in your life who truly care. Remembering that every day since my diagnosis has helped me to have so many more wonderfully awkward conversations with people I never knew cared so much about me.

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Portrait photo of George Root. George is looking intently at the camera, resting his chin on his right hand.
Article by George Root

George Root III was an accomplished author, including The Caleb Devin Chronicles. He called the wilds of Western New York home, where actually enjoyed Western New York winters. He dabbled in non-fiction, but his passion was science fantasy, science fiction, and Godzilla. George died on March 7th, 2019.



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