For some, joking about cancer is completely out of bounds. Cancer, after all, is no laughing matter. The problem is that, sometimes, it has to be. Now, during Cancer Awareness Month, is a good time to talk about why.
At the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (both in 2015 and 2016) comedians like Beth Vyse and Alastair Barrie were among those who based their comedy routines on their own or their partner’s cancer experiences. ‘It is a way of coping’, they said. ‘You can’t not laugh’. And it is a way of coping for the lay comedians among us too.
An analysis of half a million words on one particular thread of an online forum dedicated to cancer revealed that humour helps – at least for those who want to engage in it. It helps people talk more easily about potentially embarrassing side-effects and helps to reassert autonomy and reduce anxiety by reframing experiences. The particular style of humour involved had a lot to do with the fact that a number of the contributors to the thread had bowel cancer.
Bowel cancer often requires surgery as part of treatment and this sometimes results in a temporary or permanent stoma. A ‘stoma’ is when a section of the bowel is brought out through an opening on the stomach area, to which a small ‘stoma bag’ is attached to collect bowel movements. Stoma bags are generally very effective, but can occasionally leak, and bodily functions such as passing gas are not as easily controllable as before. This can lead to embarrassing social situations. As James Spiegel has discussed, though passing gas is “a universal human experience”, it is generally considered embarrassing, rude or even offensive. Equally universally true, however, is that “farts are funny” and contributors to the online forum fully exploit this potential:
Lots of wind causing smells at dinner tables and in shops and I swiftly move around and hope it doesn’t follow me, that’s quite funny actually lol.
today at this meeting, i took a bottle of coke. I like a coke but those bubbles work their way through your guts at a frightening rate and out they pop in no time making the same noise as a whoopee cushion very loudly its just like a fake fart noise! Of course I get the giggles big time with this, right in the middle of the meeting and of course no-one can tell me off cos I’ve got a bag and they are embarrassed… you get the picture… wish I could make it do it on command… just when someone was talking crap… parp!
Drawing on the work of John Morreal, Spiegel explains that the common core to funniness is a “pleasant psychological shift.” This may be caused by “a sudden sense of superiority over a person, especially someone to whom we ordinarily feel inferior”, like the colleagues in a meeting, who suddenly can’t tell you off. It may be the result of an unresolvable conflict between two things brought together that don’t normally fit, like whoopee cushions and business meetings. Or it may come about through a release of nervous tension “regarding subjects or situations that are socially taboo or inappropriate”, such as smelly gasses at dinner. These explanations align with the three main theories of humour: superiority, incongruity and relief, respectively. The key thing about fart jokes, as the contributor examples demonstrate, is that they can result in a ‘pleasant psychological shift’ in all three of these ways simultaneously. Looking at it from a slightly different perspective, the humour actually provides a socially acceptable way for contributors to mention these embarrassing incidents in first place. They are not being rude, only playful.
But contributors do more than just make fart jokes. The ways in which they make light of gas and stoma bags is also important:
If baggy had farted lots then HB would have shot across the pool…jet propulsion!
Be careful when you go swimming, remember without baggy you have lost your floatation aid!!!
Any criminals will be forced to give up at bag point, either repent or get the contents of baggy full on.
The reframing of farts and stoma bags as means of propulsion, floatation aids and weapons against criminals are examples of a humour strategy that Heath and Blonder (2003) describe as ‘an alternative interpretation of the stressor’. This re-appraisal of something potentially restrictive as helpful – even bestowing an advantage – allows contributors to re-establish their autonomy in the face of things they cannot control. And the re-appraisal of something negative as positive and funny, is likely to reduce feelings of anxiety. It’s funny, so it isn’t serious.
Of course, the fact that all this is going on online is important. People can remain anonymous and the place in which such jokes and laughter happen can remain contained within a thread. People who might find this kind of banter inappropriate, need not partake in it or even see it. The title of the thread explicitly warns them off. This is all to say that laughing and joking about cancer is not, nor should it be, for everyone. But it is for some and we shouldn’t ignore that. Making fun of cancer helps these people cope with serious, threatening and unpredictable life circumstances. As contributors themselves say:
I found a warped sense of humour came with the cancer, it was either laugh…….or cry, I prefer to laugh. It’s a sort of ‘gallows humour’, it gets worse every day. You begin to notice what miserable sods the ‘non cancer’ community are, with their trivial worries and whinges. Lunacy is therapeutic, everyone should be mad.
*This post first appeared on the IOE London Blog on 12th April 2017 (https://ioelondonblog.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/can-we-joke-about-cancer/)
 Data collection took part in the context of the Lancaster University’s Metaphor in End-of-Life Care (MELC) project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Ref: ES/J007927/1).