My husband and I laughed in the face of his cancer – now we’re encouraging others to do the same

The first year of marriage brings with it many revelations. There’s the moment when you look at the love of your life and wonder how come you hadn’t realised until now that they were this annoying. When you discover they don’t know what ‘clean’ means. And that, surprisingly, there are no limits to just how petty and passive aggressive you can be when the moment truly calls for it. Now, throw cancer into the mix and welcome to our life.

Brendan’s Leukemia added a little extra baggage to newly-wed life for us. Think of it as the elephant in the room and Brendan is chained to it.

You can’t not talk about it. It’s there knocking over stuff, forcing you to clumsily manoeuvre around the mess it makes. We found all kinds of tools to learn how to communicate as a couple like Love Languages, or ‘I’ and ‘feeling’ statements (‘I feel like you’re annoying’ for instance).

But there weren’t many resources on how to talk about cancer – so we left our humanitarian jobs and decided to create some. According to WHO, nearly every family in the world has been touched by cancer. As we reflected on our own communication challenges around ‘the Big C’, we wondered how many others were going through the same thing, and what could we do about it?

There are a whole range of emotions that make it uncomfortable to talk about your loved one’s diagnosis. For one, we’re afraid that cancer can happen to us – thinking about their mortality makes us think about our own.

We wrote Glossary of Awkward to help people answer the question, ‘How can I be a better partner or friend to someone living with cancer? And, how can I do it authentically?’.

The book is a collection of quirky cartoons that illustrate the uncomfortable moments that come up when you live with cancer. For both of us, saying ‘I have cancer,’ or ‘my husband has cancer,’ was typically met with really awkward responses that were sometimes hurtful. The cartoons in the book are inspired by these real-life conversations.

For example, after Brendan told a friend he had cancer the friend asked, ‘How long do you have?’ My former boss once told me to tell Brendan that he shouldn’t tweet so much (as if to imply that it made people doubt he was really sick). One friend even said his cancer was due to Brendan holding onto ‘bad energy.’

There are a whole range of emotions that make it uncomfortable to talk about your loved one’s diagnosis. For one, we’re afraid that cancer can happen to us – thinking about their mortality makes us think about our own. As a result, we end up saying things that resemble blame or shame as a way of distancing ourselves from a loved one’s cancer. It’s like a protective barrier.

We felt it was important to define and name these emotions because it’s harder to talk about or resolve a feeling you can’t describe. We wanted this book to feel honest and real. So many of the messages directed toward people living with cancer create this pressure to be a fearless, positive warrior all the time. But we have to acknowledge other emotions that need to be processed, like sadness, anger, or fear.

Humour, for us, was a great way to do that. Comedy allows us to confront painful truths with a laugh. Brendan will play the ‘cancer card’ at home from time to time. If we’re both trying to avoid doing a particular chore, he’ll quip, ‘But I have cancer!’ It’s impossible to beat that. But I laugh and let him get away with it because if there is one silver lining, we’ll take it.

For us, this laughter feels empowering. We felt like humour took away some of the elephant’s scariness because we were able to look directly at it and confront all of the emotional baggage it came with. While cancer can bring people together, it can also tear them apart. People living with cancer often lose friends who might distance themselves when they don’t know what to say or how to be there. They also lose romantic partners, and face significantly higher divorce rates (as if cancer weren’t a big, steaming mess all on its own).

When someone is facing a life-threatening illness, they need a network of strong, supportive relationships. According to Danish comedian, Victor Borge, ‘laughter is the shortest distance between two people’. We wrote Glossary of Awkward to bring people closer together during a difficult time. To take away cancer’s power to make us feel so uncomfortable, so we can all get better at being there for the people we love.

This piece was commissioned by and was first published here: 

Corinne Gray