In the Home from the Sea episode of the 1980s series Magnum PI, Tom Selleck spends many hours abandoned, treading water in the Pacific. He is stressed, but buoyed by memories of his father teaching him to swim. Then the shark starts circling.
“If you give funny names to the things that scare you,” he remembers his father saying, “then they won’t be half so scary.”
So, Tom names the shark Herman. He talks to the shark, jokes with the shark, yells at the shark, and doesn’t panic. The shark is curious, but doesn’t attack. Tom miraculously survives, is rescued, and moves on to the next season.
I was reminded of this episode when chatting with my cousin, affected by Hurricane Irma. Who can be terrified by something named Irma? It was a massive storm with a grandmother’s name. Irma was a big inconvenience to many, deadly to some, destructive, and horrendously expensive, kind of like cancer.
Panic is not an effective response to a hurricane. People need to be able to think clearly - to evaluate their personal priorities and threats, protect their property, avoid deep water, and seek shelter. So, naming hurricanes not only helps to distinguish one from another, but gives people a psychological advantage in difficult situations.
I’ve named my breast cancer Donald, in honor of the biggest stressor of the last year, a scary presence, over which I have little control, other than my personal response. I have chosen to resist this threat, but not obsess over it. I will not panic; I will be strong. I will handle Donald the way comedians do, by mocking him. I’ll also handle this threat as warriors do, by fighting it.
And yes, I may sound flippant. My diagnosis won’t change because of this – the cancer monster won't be offended and take revenge because I didn’t give it enough respect. I have always respected this disease, and I’m grieving the loss of a friend who recently died from esophageal cancer. But Holly didn’t let cancer stop her feisty attitude, and neither will I. Every cancer is different, and each story has a different ending or humans would give up hope, and stop reading.
Cancer diagnosis and treatment is stressful. There are many ways to relieve stress, and my favorite is laughter. The endorphins released by a belly-laugh have got to be healthy.
The naming of Donald D. Lump has had multiple benefits. I smiled during my first biopsy, at the thought of his squalling head getting pierced by a needle. The doctor who came in with his serious ‘cancer’ face chuckled and relaxed when I shared my attitude. People who don’t like to say words like ‘breast’ or ‘cancer’ (including me) are more comfortable talking about Donald. And when Donald Jr. was discovered hiding behind dense tissue, I was ready for him too. Hopefully Eric, Ivanka, etc. won’t be joining the party, but if they do, they’ll be named.
The jokes and metaphors keep me smiling. Dump the Lump. Impeach the Lump. Trump the Lump. Get his tiny hands off your girls! Donald will be tagged with a radioactive tracer before the Pink Army goes in for a surgical strike. After that, we’ll try chemical or nuclear weapons. If other cancer survivors want to use the Donald metaphor, I won’t mind a bit. In fact, this might be a fitting tribute to our misogynist-in-chief.
I realize I am extremely lucky – I can have this attitude because Donald was caught early, before his tiny hands could invade more of my body (we think). I live in a city not devastated by hurricane, or war, or poverty, or fire, so the hospitals and doctors are ready with modern treatments. I have insurance, savings, and a powerful support network of friends and family. Part of my cheerfulness stems from survivor’s euphoria, recognizing that I’ve had a close call, but should be okay after treatment.
Even if my diagnosis were more serious or my situation direr, I would give my fear a funny name, and resist it, and keep treading water, and look for the funny side, because there is almost always a funny side, as long as you are alive. If MASH could make jokes about war for 11 years, I can make jokes about cancer. I need to make jokes about cancer.
Remember Rudolph the Reindeer's friend, the dentist? Laughter and friendship can pull the teeth from a monster, and defuse a bully. They are important weapons.