Cancer and Keeping a Sense of Humor

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on April 10, 2008 0 Comments

When people ask what my debut novel, The Department of Lost and Found, is about, I mutter something about a young woman who is diagnosed with cancer and wait for the inevitable reaction. Horror. It’s as if their brains are flashing, “There is no way in freaking hell that I’d read a book about cancer.” I mean, truly, it’s painfully and incredibly obvious.

So then I offer up my caveat. “But it’s really funny! And it’s not really about cancer, it’s more about a young woman’s journey to self-discovery, and the cancer is just the catalyst.” They nod their heads and look at me unconvinced. You’re probably reading this and thinking the same thing. Yeah, right.

So let me rewind and explain how I got here. Over three years ago, I lost someone close to me to breast cancer. After the funeral, I didn’t know where to put my grief. I mean, how do you box up that sort of devastation? Where do you put it? How do you move forward?

(Ahem, I know. You’re wondering, when does this get funny? Hang in there.)

The answer is, or at least, my answer was, to write. I woke up one morning with a vision of a character who would soon become my protagonist, Natalie. She was a ferocious 30-year old whose cancer diagnosis would throw her world on end but ultimately, wouldn’t beat her. And so, I sat down in front of my computer and wrote. And wrote and wrote and wrote. Until three months later, not only did I have a completed manuscript, I’d also wrestled with a good amount of my grief.

Which brings me to the funny.

As I was writing, it became clear that I was using the book as a tool for healing, and because of this, never once did it occur to me to drag the prose or the plot down in maudlin, heavy-handed themes. Because, come on, as anyone who has ever been touched by cancer knows, the last thing you need in this situation is something else to remind you of the horror of the experience. So instead, I placed Natalie in humorous situations (her first experiences smoking pot, her increasing obsession with The Price is Right, her top 5 list of celebrities she wants to sleep with), and showed (I hope) that you can keep your sense of humor (and your sense of life) even while battling this insidious disease.

Since The Department of Lost and Found has come out, I’ve received notes from a variety of people whose lives (for better or worse) have been affected by cancer, and nearly all of them have told me that the book has helped them heal in some way. And most of them delighted in the fact that while I still took the time to highlight the difficulties that cancer can wreak, both physically and emotionally, I also made the point that it doesn’t have to break your spirit. And that, in fact, it can even bolster it.

So to cancer I say, screw you. If I can eke a laugh out of the disease, then I’m certain that it’s not unbeatable. A cure can’t be too far behind.


When Life Takes a Wrong Turn, You Can Find Your Way Back. The Department of Lost & Found is a featured book in Fictions Readers, a group to discuss contemporary women’s fiction, books, women’s issues and much more. Click here to join the group.

Click here to buy the book.

About the Author ()

I think that how people perceive me (as noted above!) is pretty accurate!

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