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'Bald Chicks Rule' and the other laughs

December 19, 2006

My friend Amy routinely uses humor to diminish the angst of going to see her cancer doctor. During an exam one day when he asked her to remove her shirt, she replied, deadpan:

"Aren't you going to buy me a drink first?" He turned red; she cracked up.

And so did I when we swapped tales months later at a diner over our stranger-than-fiction moments in oncology.

This is not to say cancer isn't a miserable disease with enormously dark moments.

It is.

There are some days I make Sylvia Plath look well-adjusted and chipper. And there are some days I want to put my hand through a paned-glass window.

But then there are days when things aren't so bad, when I laugh at how absurd it is that I probably have enough hospital wrist bands to stretch from Maine to California. Humor is empowering. Levity can pop up in the most unexpected places. It's a non-emotional way to confront an emotional situation.

In fact, gallows humor has helped cops survive crime scenes; soldiers survive foxholes, and us cancer patients survive the stresses of treatment.

This is why there is at least one Web site, Cafepress.com, that has emerged in recent years to sell humorous gifts for cancer patients. No typical "Thinking of You" cards or "Desiderata" poems -- which can also be helpful at times -- from this Foster City, Calif. company that hosts vendors.

Instead, you'll find T-shirts, mugs, teddy bears and hats with irreverent -- sometimes profane -- sayings like, "I love the Smell of Chemo in the Morning," or "One more MRI and I will stick to the Fridge."

The MRI T-shirt was the design creation of Atlanta-based humorist Jennifer Shephard, 37, who lost both grandparents to cancer. She began selling her items on the Web site about two years ago and estimates she has sold about 10,000 so far. She said she donates all profits to cancer research.

"With something so scary, the only way to get through it is to feel like you are thumbing your nose at it," said Shephard. "It's almost like you are rebelling against it."

There are items for all types of cancer. "Save the ta ta's" for breast cancer, or "Stop colon cancer. Moon a doctor." My personal favorites: a T-shirt that reads: "Bald Chicks Rule" and one with the simple yellow and black triangular symbols that indicate "radioactive material." I keep meaning to wear that one to the airport.

"For years, people played it very safe for people who are sick," said Marc Cowlin, a spokesman for Cafepress.com. "A newer trend points at the problem to make the person laugh a little bit. After all, they say humor is the best medicine."

Luckily, those around me agree. Humor also has a bite, and that bite is what let my friends know I was still my old self. And still am, mostly.

After my lung cancer diagnosis 29 months ago, I asked my friends in the newsroom to come up with the best title for my memoirs. Journalists, with their often perverse sense of humor, offered some goodies: Tuesdays with Laurie, the Lungless and the Restless. Oddly enough, I laughed so hard I cried.

A few months ago my friend Sylvie sent me a postcard with the saying: "You say I'm a witch like it's a bad thing." It is taped to my refrigerator. She's also the designated waiting room caricaturist, penning New Yorker-like cartoon versions of the flood of people in the hospital, including my doctors, my parents and any friends who happen to be hanging around during one of my stays.

Leah, my oldest friend and partner in geekdom since the third grade, provided me during one chemo regimen with a detailed synopsis of our childhood tormenters -- you know, the ones who have since grown up to be serial killers. I read that list howling, and the hours passed like moments. My friend Carole opts for sending humor cards over rainbows and teddy bears. And Karla, the queen of gag gifts, presented me with a pirate's eye patch and a matching pirate's hook for my hand after recent eye surgery. It made the nurses laugh. Very nice, I thought, as a smile crept to my own lips. Then again, it could have also been the morphine drip.

E-mail thoughts to lauren.terrazzano@newsday.com

Email: lauren.terrazzano@newsday.com

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I don't know how anyone can get through this without humor. I can remember when my sister was first interviewed by the cancer center. She was asked several questions and on each one she and her husband would answer with something silly. Anyway, the nurse asked her if she has any problems with anesthesia (spelling?) and she said.."just that it makes me very sleepy". I don't know, maybe you had to be there.

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