Finding the funny when the diagnosis isn’t

Note from Carolyn: “I’m taking the weekend off as we celebrate with family and friends the wedding of my favourite daughter, Larissa to her longtime beau Randy.  So meanwhile, I’ve obtained permission to republish this guest post by Casey Quinlan for you. Enjoy!”

It’s not easy hearing your name and [insert dread diagnosis here]. I know this only too well after having to find the funny in my own journey through cancer. Cancer is, however, most often a diagnosis that you fight to a defined end. What’s it like to find the funny in a chronic condition?

I have a number of friends who are battling MS, one of whom, Amy Gurowitz, shared a link on Facebook the other day to Jim Sweeney’s online empire of improv humor and chronic disease. Jim’s MS journey started with vision problems in 1985, he was officially diagnosed in 1990, and has been dealing with the disease – finding the funny most of the time – ever since.

Jim’s body of work includes decades of live improv, his one-man show “My MS & Me,” which you can hear on the BBC Radio 1 site. His MS has progressed to the point that he’s now in a wheelchair; his public presence includes Twitter, where his profile describes him as a housebound hedonist (hey, it made ME laugh) and the documentary film The Sweeney.

How much courage does it take to laugh out loud, in public, at an incurable disease?  Jim certainly has courage at the level required.

Other examples of funny-or-die in managing chronic disease include Mark S. King’s fabulously funny My Fabulous Disease blog (Mark is HIV-positive). The aforementioned Amy Gurowitz laughs out loud about her MS in a number of places, including MS Soft Serve and MS-LOL (life of learning OR laugh out loud, you pick).

On the provider side, there are a number of docs who are breaking up the waiting rooms and wards.

Dr. Patricia Raymond is a gastroenterologist whose mission in life is to take the “ick” out of colonoscopies. She bills herself as The Fabulous Butt Meddler. Since she looks like Bette Midler, the joke works on every level.

Dr. Zubin Damania, aka ZDoggMD (“Slightly Funnier Than Placebo”), is a hospital medicine specialist in Palo Alto as well as a veritable buffet of medical humor, some G-rated and some most definitely NSFW. His videos alone guarantee hours of laughter.

There’s an entire site dedicated to clinician humor called – both ZDoggMD and Dr. Butt Meddler are featured there, along with a host of other find-the-funny MDs and RNs.

I even found a scholarly article entitled The Use of Humor to Promote Patient Centered Care – be warned, though, that (1) it’s a “scholarly article,” meaning that it’s probably had all the laughs surgically removed, and (2) they want $34 for it. You have been warned.

What’s my point here? I actually have two:

  1. Laughter really is the best medicine. Humor keeps us in touch with our humanity, and – unless it’s insult comedy, which I do not recommend in the health care arena, unless it’s insulting bad health care – it helps to comfort others in the same situation.
  2. Patients and providers need to work together to help each other find the funny. If you’re a doctor, don’t just say: “You’ve got [insert dread diagnosis here], here’s the treatment plan, call if you have any questions, … NEXT!”  Look your patients in the eye, and channel your inner comedian whenever it’s appropriate. If you’re a patient, connect with other people in your situation and see how they’re finding the funny. And help your doctors find their funny. If they can’t find it, you should find another doctor.

We all need to work together to break each other up. Laughter can comfort, can calm, it can even heal.

That’s real disruptive health care, no prescription required.

♥     ♥    ♥

       Casey Quinlan

;This article was reposted here with the kind permission of Disruptive Women in Health Care, where it was originally published on November 23, 2011.  Casey Quinlan is a storyteller, speaker, media strategist, stand-up comic and author of “Cancer for Christmas: Making the Most of a Daunting Gift – the story of her “health care car wash” ride after being diagnosed with breast cancer five days before Christmas in 2007.



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16 thoughts on “Finding the funny when the diagnosis isn’t

  1. I am so excited and hopeful to have come across your website.

    As an RN, I’ve been so frustrated by the general lack of understanding and seriousness given by physicians and nurses to women with heart disease. I walked around for nearly 2 years with epigastric pain and shortness of breath. I had a normal EKG and never failed a stress test. I was sent to a GI doc over and over and nothing was found.

    Just when I was thinking I was crazy, had an embolism and a subsequent cath showed several severely blocked arteries. Since then I have continued to have the same symptoms mostly at night or at rest. Once again I’m getting the same response from the local medical community. I went to the ER recently because the pain was so severe that I thought I was having a heart attack. My EKG and blood work were normal as usual. They decided to admit me because of my history and did a cardiac cath. It was clear and they sent me home with a dx of angina.

    Now my insurance has denied payment. I know something is still wrong but once again I’m getting that same treatment. I read a comment by Andrea Rosenhaft regarding a women’s cardiac group in NYC. I live in the metropolitan area and would be very interested to know the name of the group in hopes that they might have more insight into women’s heart disease. Thanks for any help.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a maddeningly frustrating story, Kathie. To have go go through all that only to have your insurance company deny payment?!?! Something is causing your symptoms, and a clear cath does NOT necessarily rule out heart disease (we know that a number of cardiac conditions common in women do not show up on standard diagnostic tests).

      The mention here of a women’s group in NYC likely referred to WomenHeart support communities; here’s a link to the online support community of heart patients, plus a map of local WomenHeart support groups meeting in many cities (just click on your state for a list of group meetings and contact info). Best of luck to you…


  2. I have a question. I’m not completely happy with the full efforts of the medical community.They love to test and diagnose, but what about follow up?

    I ask about vitamins, diets, etc… I was told “We don’t do that”. Nutrition, diet, hormone levels etc… I joined a holistic group here in Alpharetta. They tested for food allergies (I have none), vitamin deficiencies, I had a lot!, hormone levels (I am waiting to hear, but I suspect), I get recipes directed toward my illness, support and health guidance. I like it, I recommend it. Have others had a good experience with holistic (natural) treatments?


  3. I have been reading your comments and getting more attached to you each day 🙂

    Heart disease, It comes in so many forms… blockage of course, But what got us there? Was it bad food choices, hereditary issues, heart ache over a love gone wrong, losing something we feel was taken from us without proper cause (a child, a spouse, a parent, a job, a house?)

    Dis-Ease is exactly that. A condition of not being comfortable, of not feeling at ease with ones self. Whether you have joined this group to prevent a heart attack or chronic illness, or whether you have joined to overcome a situation.

    I am glad you are here. “Women brought us into this world and women will bring us out.” It was a quote I read in a book. It means, Women give birth to us in the beginning and in the end, women are normally the ones seeing us through to the other side, why? Because, We usually outlive the sods! 🙂 I am not sure who wrote that (OK, It was me).

    We have read: Mind, Body, Spirit. Connect with all three and you will feel whole. I agree. I also will add a number four. Connect with woman, The Sisterhood Connection is priceless.


    1. Thanks for your input, Rachel. There are several theories about what causes heart disease (but more being revealed all the time! – look at all the recent studies on pregnancy complications, now linked with a 2-3 fold increase in subsequent heart disease years later). Sometimes, we just don’t know what we don’t know yet.

      Love that sisterhood connection – SO true…


      1. Yes, Carolyn. Many things cause us to get where we are. I have too many to list here, BUT what I do know, is we can help each other, we can provide the support to get another human being through, we can make a difference. Believe in the power of healing. The hard part comes when you have to face what really needs your attention. Sisterhood helps with that. I can tell on this site, We have some straight shooters. That is a good thing.


      2. That is a new one for me. Tell us more. I had my babies late (36 and 38). I would not change anything (I would do it again). BUT, if there is preventative measures young people can take to reduce risk. Please share. A very interesting topic. Thank you.


        1. There’s no magic bullet – just very common sense ways that all women should know about to reduce heart disease risk: exercise every day, eat healthier, manage stress better, make sleep a priority, don’t smoke, monitor blood sugars/blood pressure and other risk factors. Read more on improving your odds here.


          1. I agree with that Carolyn. No magic pill. However, there are very strong and supportive things a person can do for themselves. It takes a lot of discipline in the beginning. It’s easy to lay on the couch and watch other people live.

            When a Dr. told me to “get my things in order” I came home did just that. Then I bought a few things. I bought a bike (my kids have been wanting me to ride down the green way in Alpharetta with them. Then, I bought a juicer, then I bought a second company that I run myself, then I bought a pair of 8 week old Great Dane Puppies that MAKE me walk them daily. I am 3 years past what they told me to expect and I expect to go a few more 🙂 There is beauty and strength in nature, in giving and supporting.

            I like this site 🙂


  4. Thanks for reposting this, Carolyn. Enjoyed the links here and admire others’ ability to laugh in the face of chronic illness. I’m just not there yet, wish I were. Congrats on the wedding, hope it was a happy day for all.


    1. Thank you for your comment, Stephanie. We are where we are – we never know when something we hear or read will help us down the road. Good luck to you.


      1. I am so happy to find this site! I had lunch with a work colleague last week and HE told me about you. I am thrilled to be here and share our experiences… Wow, We have had so many haven’t we? and to my amazement, still here to tell the story! 🙂


  5. I think it’s Brilliant!

    I have only 4 living relatives left on Earth. My Mom, My Brother and my 2 children. That means I have experienced a lot of deaths in my lifetime. The ONLY thing that can get a person through devastating times is humor. My family finds the “funny” in everything . We get “tickled” at the worst possible times, funerals, death beds, Dr offices where we hear bad results. Our Southern heritage helps the situation. We have more “sayings” than there are Chins in a Chinese Phone Book. They just “pop” out at the worst possible moments. Or is it a gift? Sometimes you are face to face with something so horrific that the only thing to do is break down or laugh out loud (Well done in The movie Steel Magnolias, where there was a funeral scene and instead of falling apart, One of the sisterhood slaps Weezie, it disrupted the entire melt down and life went on..)

    Just yesterday, I had devastating news that my Mom’s best friend of 50 years had a stroke, she will be 83 in 2 weeks if she makes it. Devastating! We can’t imagine life without her and we have shed a river of tears. However.. I had to know the story.. what happened? Where did it happen? It happened at a Cracker Barrel. She walked up the steps, got to the top and crashed into a antique washing machine they had displayed on the porch area. Nothing funny there… but we snort laughed and then proceeded to cry some more. Ms. C taking out a antique washing machine… She is still talking and she has a lot to say about her long time deceased husband (never to be published)… get it out girl! get it out! 50 years is too long to hold in anger… Plus, It’s funny.

    Learn to laugh.



  6. One more for the list:
    Alison Whittaker‘s solo performance is firmly based in her work as an R.N. Playing a full cast of characters, she presents a funny and moving picture behind-the-scenes at an urban hospital. If you’re anywhere near San Francisco, try to catch VITAL SIGNS: THE PULSE OF AN AMERICAN NURSE. Or Alison Whittaker just might be performing at a fringe festival near you.


    1. Thanks for the heads up about Alison’s one-woman show, Kathleen! I’ll be near SF in September attending the Medicine X Conference at Stanford – but her show closes August 25th. 😦


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