Laughing Away Cancer

[NCSD guest blog post by Mack Dryden]

Mack Dryden

I’m a professional comedian and a two-time cancer survivor, and I make people laugh about my cancer journey until their faces hurt. That might sound counter-intuitive, but I do my best to convince people that it’s not only okay, but a duty to laugh if you’re touched by this cruel disease.

Coincidentally, I was first diagnosed around the time Norman Cousins made headlines with his groundbreaking research into the healing power of laughter.  Baffling scientists, he literally laughed a deadly disease into remission, validating the adage that “He who laughs, lasts.” Numerous studies since have proven that laughter releases healing chemicals into the body – even cancer killing agents! – so when I was diagnosed, I figured I’d be the dumbest comedian on earth if I didn’t stay positive and get as many laughs as possible. You see, we comedians get our endorphins and serotonin flowing by making other people laugh. I joked through both of my ordeals because I thought it was the smart, practical, and definitely the most fun thing to do. Frankly, I can’t think of a single situation where having a negative attitude and no sense of humor is the smart thing to do. There were so many arguments against being depressed and miserable that I decided to spread some Tumor Humor instead, and the rewards have been incalculable.

One day when I was throwing up, a nurse asked how I was doing.

“Well, I’ve puked up about everything,” I croaked, “but I think I found my class ring.” 

Her exuberant giggles were like a shot of morphine to me. Suddenly I was the caregiver, making her feel better, and my reward was feeling better than I had all day.  

Comedians get criticized for doing “below the belt” humor, but that’s where The Beast attacked me. The day before the operation to remove my cancerous testicle, my doctor asked if I wanted him to implant a plastic prosthesis so I would look the same. “Why, doc?” I asked. “Don’t you think my friends will recognize me?” His laugh assured me I was on the right track, and I’m glad I green-lighted the prosthesis: now I can get hit with a pool cue and I’ve got a 50-50 chance of not feeling a thing! 

The radiation saved my life, and I don’t care that it sterilized me. I had already fathered the most beautiful daughter in the world, so I tell people that “I got the crop in before I lost the farm!” 

I figured I had had my cancer experience and was home free. Imagine my surprise twenty years later when I had a routine eye exam and a malignant melanoma was found on the back of my eyeball. My surgeon knew my history and laughed when I said, “Gee, doc. I’m having no luck at all with these round organs.”

He sewed a little radioactive, bottle-cap-shaped plaque on the back of my eyeball. I was quarantined from my family for a week and lost 90% of the vision in my right eye.When he removed the plaque eight days later, he asked me how my week had been. “It was kind of fun being Radioactive Man,” I said. “I could glare a Birdseye frozen dinner into a hot meal in 30 seconds.” He tittered. “My X-ray vision only seemed to work on the pudgy mailman, which was disappointing.” He chuckled. “But I found if I stared at the dog long enough, I could make her butt itch, a lot of fun.” He guffawed and said the treatment obviously hadn’t diminished my sense of humor.

“No,” I said. “Not bad for a guy who’s half blind and half nuts.”

He laughed again, and it felt good to give something back to the man who had saved my life.

If your life is touched by cancer, laughter should be part of your regular therapy. Don’t consider yourself funny? You don’t have to be. Jot down TV monologue jokes that make you laugh (you can find them all online the very next day, btw), Reader’s Digest anecdotes, email funnies, things your kids or others have said. And you could spend years surfing YouTube for HILARIOUS little videos. Laughing – and making others laugh – will make you feel better; and everyone you touch will be grateful for your precious gift.

Mack Dryden is a two-time cancer survivor, professional comedian, actor, and motivational speaker. His talents have landed him writing jobs on network shows and numerous movie and TV appearances, including several performances on The Tonight Show and such series as JAG, The Guardian, and a featured role in a TV movie opposite Keith Carradine and the late Karl Malden. Mack has brought his special brand of Motivation, Inspiration and Jubilation to all 50 states and five continents, and he and his wife have happily settled in their final home of Louisville, KY. Follow him on Twitter at @MackTheComedian, Facebook at @LaughToTheTop and at

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