Photos courtesy of Renée

Laughing at Cancer: Why I Never Miss A Single Dose of Humor

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I remember the poster. In sepia tones, there was a broken down vintage trailer on the side of the road being pushed from behind by six very strong guys all wearing ripped jeans. It was very eye-catching hidden in the collage of cards and letters that decorated the walls of my hospital room.

My deal with that poster was this: Once I noticed someone looking at it, I called them out and they had to tell me which guy caught their eye. It didn’t matter who it was — family, friends, nurses, doctors, and everyone in between was fair game. Even the head of the intensive care unit.

It was probably inappropriate for a pediatric oncology patient but it’s what made me laugh and at that time that was all that mattered. Everyone went along with it and we all got a good laugh in. As I clung to life in the intensive care unit I still tried to find a way to laugh at cancer’s ugly face and as soon as I regained stability, I was back to finding more ways to laugh through the pain.

I guess it helped me shake off the uncomfortable feeling that came with being in the hospital for cancer treatment instead of graduating high school.

Renée with her family during treatment in 2002
Renée with her family during treatment in 2002.

Laughing through my first (and second) cancer diagnosis

And so as an 18-year-old with an unpromising leukemia prognosis, my mission of making people laugh began.

I had a remote-controlled fart machine with a wireless speaker and about fifteen different farting sounds. I’d hide the speaker under my hospital blanket and tried my best to act along with every sound and keep a straight face as the medical staff was treating me. I even dared one of my sisters to put the speaker in her pocket and walk around the nurses’ station while I had the remote.

Often I would pretend to be asleep when specialists or social workers came by and just as they tried to gently wake me, I would jump up and surprise them. When the forms would come for my hospital meals, I wrote down my restaurants of choice instead of selecting from the BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast) menu I was given.

When they started me on Doxorubicin, I remember my oncologist telling me about the electric pink reaction that happens when undergoing that specific chemotherapy. I just so happened to have a bright red wig in my growing collection so as soon as I finished my treatment and my oncologist was coming to check on me, I popped my head out from under my sheets and wearing my red wig, proclaimed, “wow, that was quick!” My oncologist laughed and said, “yes it’s powerful!” All the while coping with the electric pain my frail little body was enduring.

My humor even followed me through the holidays that year and for Halloween, I was Dr. Evil from Austin Powers. I just had my bone marrow transplant and was allowed to walk around the hospital if I kept on my pink 3M 2091 mask and practiced social distancing. I was bald, pale, and wore the hospital’s blue scrubs. It was too perfect.

Snapshot from Renée’s scrapbook featuring Halloween memories
Snapshot from Renée’s scrapbook featuring Halloween memories.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, this kind of sarcastic humor again replaced the torture with laughter and serenity. Thankfully, my care team responded to my pranks with the same positivity and laughed along with me during the awkward moments.

I would show up to my chemotherapy wearing shirts with cancer puns on them or huge black Jackie-O-inspired sunglasses with a Scarlet O’Hara attitude styled with a Marilyn Monroe glamour vibe and various colored wigs. I wanted to make this ugly cancer as pretty as can be — especially because my daughter had just started kindergarten. She helped me shave my head, pick out hats, and select which wigs to wear.

Renée sporting her colored wigs and funny t-shirts.

In response to the nurses asking if I needed anything, I would joke with them and say “you got any rum or chocolate?” When I finally finished all my chemotherapy and radiation treatments, they presented me with lots of hugs, a Survival Award, and rum-filled chocolates.

Coping with cancer through humor

Of course, it hasn’t been all laughter and pranks. The long, grueling treatments and painful procedures mixed with the complete invasion of privacy and loss of bodily control are beyond traumatic and can easily outweigh the silly moments. You just want to block it out. And you do so that you can power through it.

The only healthy way I know to cope with accepting both of my cancer battles is to find my peace with the uncomfortable parts and recognize what cancer has given me as well.

Cancer introduced me to people who would forever impact my life and the way I chose to live it. It’s given me 19 extra birthdays. It’s given me a miracle daughter with a resilient spirit.

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Renée with her daughter Ava in 2020.

These experiences and a-ha moments wouldn’t have been possible unless the painfully uncomfortable moments happened. But it’s what you do with it that matters. How you respond, and how you recover.

When I reflect on my experiences, I am reminded of the times I laughed at cancer and the people who laughed with me. I look at my scars and my tattoos and the scars have much more interesting stories. I repeat my mantras. I teach my daughter that our bodies are like castles, that immune systems are like the knights protecting the Princess inside. Then she says “so our face masks are like the moats.”

Health doesn’t only come from medicine — but they say laughter is the best medicine with good reason. I try to never miss a dose.

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Renée Firato
Guest Writer

Mom to Ava, preschool teacher, and endlessly inspiring cancer hero, Renée received support from our Financial Treatment Program in April 2020. Through her gift of gab and wonderful way with words, she’s eager to share her perspective with the Family Reach community.

Read more from Renée.

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