Lillie Shockney thought she was prepared for the questions her daughter would ask when she found out Mom had breast cancer.
But she never expected 12-year-old Laura to ask if her mom would be able to keep her breast after the mastectomy. And when Laura sincerely suggested she keep it on the mantel in Daddy’s big pickle jar, Shockney had to struggle to keep a straight face.
Later, she told her husband about their conversation. “What do you think, honey?” she said. “My breast in a pickle jar next to your deer head and blue fish?”
In their laughter, Shockney found a turning point in her approach to cancer. Like many others who have come face to face with a life-threatening illness, she has found humor to be the light that guided her through dark nights of fear and despair.
A nurse at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Shockney has become an ambassador of humor, promoting laughter as a source of healing in lectures and books, including “Stealing Second Base,” about her experience with breast cancer.
Laughing “just for the health of it” is the goal of LaughFest, the 10-day festival of comedy sponsored by Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids, an organization named after late comedian Gilda Radner that provides support to people with cancer. The series of performances and lectures starts March 10.
Combining comedy and cancer makes sense to Sister Sue Tracy, a 70-year-old Dominican sister. As a four-time cancer survivor and a certified laughter leader, Tracy knows a thing or two about the healing power of humor.
“I look at every experience as bodymindspirit,” she says, adding she sees the three words as one. “What affects part of me affects all the others,” Tracy says. “Whatever can enhance our positive perspective on life is going to be helpful and hopeful.”
On May 25, Tracy will mark the 25th anniversary of the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has since coped with a second case of breast cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and several skin cancers.
Sitting in the living room of her home on Grand Rapids’ West Side, Tracy says she wants to make it clear that she has had her share of down moments, particularly when prednisone caused severe mood swings. She recalls the day she sat in an armchair in that same spot and wondered if she was foolish to be so optimistic about her battle with cancer.
“I said, ‘Sue, get realistic,’” she says, covering her face with her hands. “Should I be planning my own funeral?”
But she had always approached life with a sense of humor, and she eventually decided she would not let cancer take that away from her.
She told people she found “an earnest carpenter” to do her surgery. She smiles as she explains that her surgeon was Dr. Ernest Carpenter.
Now, Tracy works as a chaplain at Spectrum Health, bringing her message of hope, humor and healing to patients there.
“I believe I have been spared,” she says. “I am to be a presence and a support to people and their families on their cancer journey.”
Her tools include a collection of pun-filled jokes. For example: “Why do spiders do so well in computer class? They love the Web.”
Sometimes, she is aided by an oversized, soft, stuffed “pill” that makes a laughing sound when you squeeze it.
She doesn’t bring out the jokes or the goofy pill the minute she meets a patient, however. She is a chaplain, not a clown, she says. But when she talks to patients, she finds most are open to humor, and she is happy to oblige.
“We hunger for humor. We long for laughter,” she says. “I call humor and laughter ‘nutrients.’”
Serious and responsible
Unlike Tracy, Shockney says she didn’t approach life with a sense of humor before she got cancer. A farmer’s daughter, she took on responsibility for milking cows when she was 6.
Later, she was ostracized in high school because she was one of the few students to transfer in from another school.
Her life experiences shaped her into a serious, hard-working bookworm — a loner, but not by choice.
Her work ethic carried her far: She is director of the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center and the author of a dozen books for patients and health care professionals.
But it wasn’t until she was diagnosed with cancer at age 38 that she found her sense of humor.
“It wasn’t until this happened that I stepped back and said, ‘What can I do to get myself mentally through this?’” she says. “I thought finding the dark humor in it will get me through it.”
Funny observations that she once kept to herself suddenly were spoken out loud. She became more outgoing, and other people responded by becoming more engaging. She evolved into an extroverted life of the party.
Now, when she works with breast cancer patients, Shockney prescribes laughter. Seriously.
“Laughter lowers our blood pressure, and it gets more oxygen into our bodies,” she says. “It produces endorphins and it gets the T cells pumping. It does all good things. It doesn’t do anything negative.
“And it’s free.”
Lori and Paul Stabile can attest to the healing power of humor. The Jenison couple have relied on laughter to help them through Lori’s battle with cancer.
Lori, 43, was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2005. After surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the cancer went into remission for two years. In July 2009, she found it had spread to her liver and tailbone, and now she is undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
Before she had cancer, Lori was often stressed about doing everything just right.
“I was always a glass-half-full kind of person,” she says.
“And I was just glad to have a glass,” quips Paul.
Since having cancer, “I’ve just found that I’ve really lightened up,” Lori says. “I choose to get up every day and make the best of it and move forward.”
“It might not happen until noon,” her husband teases. “But you still make the best of it.”
Lori has several wigs, and each has a name. Sometimes, she’ll ask her husband, “Who do you want me to be tonight?”
“I’ll say, ‘Crystal looks pretty good,’” Paul says.
Lori, an ophthalmic technician, and Paul, who works in training and development for Allegan drug manufacturer Perrigo, say a good attitude is second only to faith in helping them cope.
The couple frequently attend support group meetings at Gilda’s Club with their children, Alyssa, 17; Joey, 14; and Libby, 11. While Lori meets with other people who have cancer, Paul meets with other spouses, and the children meet kids their own ages.
Even as they discuss their fear and pain, the group members often find something to laugh about.
“There’s always something funny that happens,” Lori says. “Even through all the ick, you can find a way to joke.”
For those who don’t have cancer, the Stabiles advise using a little tact in approaching the topic with humor. If they meet someone else who has cancer, they don’t start off cracking cancer jokes. They try to be sensitive to the other person’s approach to life.
But, Paul says, it’s important not to assume that someone battling cancer doesn’t want to hear the latest funny story.
“They might need a break,” he says. “Yes, we have cancer, but we also like to laugh.”
“This is our family,” Lori says. “This is our journey. This is our life.”