Laughing My Way through Cancer

[NCSD guest blog post by Brenda Elsagher]

Brenda Elsagher

I was drinking and driving on my way to the CAT scan in 1995. People sometimes go a little crazy when diagnosed with cancer; they spend a lot of money, or drink excessively, or sometimes eat a lot of chocolate. I was acting crazy too. After I was told I had colorectal cancer, I rebelled by not wearing my seat belt for three days! And now I was drinking the white chalky concoction as I drove to pick up my mom who would accompany me to this test…all without wearing my seat belt! 

A mother of two small children, three and five years old, I was scared out of my wits and had cried most of the 24 hours after hearing I needed a hysterectomy, vaginal reconstruction, my cheeks sewed shut, and a permanent colostomy, and then I was  told that if the cancer had spread to my liver and lungs, they wouldn’t bother to do the operation, just make me as comfortable as possible.  

As I drove, I knew this test was important and brought up the painful talk between mother and daughter about these possible last months of my life; I wanted to make them fun for the kids, my husband, and for me, and not be all sad. I made Mom promise to do the same. 

Tension was high as I entered the CAT scan. A young, beautiful nurse hooked me up with an IV and then the machine made its noise, telling me when to breathe. After a while, an older nurse came to unhook me from the IV and she told me a story. “Last week, there was a guy here getting a CAT scan. The young nurse hooked him up and I unhooked him. He looked at me and said, ‘I knew I was in there a long time, but this is ridiculous!’” I laughed hard and instantly felt better, realizing that humor was key for me. If I could find humor through this experience I would be okay. It didn’t take long to find it. 

I began my barrage of tests with ten different doctors having my private parts inspected, probed, and photographed, culminating in a visit with the ostomy nurse who would tell me about my upcoming colostomy. She was careful and slow in her explanations and then asked if I had any questions. “Yes, I do,” I said. “Where do the farts go?” She said, “Flatulence goes into the pouch.” Right away I figured out that flatulencemeant fart and pouchmeant bag. In my mind I thought, I will be walking around with gas in my bag. Now that truly could be a biological weapon! Sarcasm seemed to help me cope.  I needed humor of any kind to help me deal with the fact that I had an outstanding butt and many people were looking at it. When I say outstanding, I mean, if I was standing in the kitchen, my butt was out standing in the living room. It almost had a shelf built into it; I could probably set a table for 12 on that butt.

After a seven-hour surgery, I woke up in intensive care with the wires hooked up all over me and my husband leaned close to me and I knew he was going to say just the right thing. He said, “Brenda, right now you look like the back of my stereo system.”  It made me laugh out loud.  Days later, the orderly would take me by chair to hand me off to the nurse on the regular floor. She stopped after a few feet, put her hand on my shoulder and behind me said, “Are your privates clean?”

I thought, I have no idea, they have been reconstructed, I stammered, “Uh, um,” and then she quickly said, “Oh, I’m not talking to you; I’m on the phone asking the nurse at the other end of the hall if the private rooms are clean.” We both chuckled as she wheeled me to my room. Once I started looking for humor, I found it all around me in the care of the nurses, doctors, housekeepers in the hospital, as well as family and friends. They were supportive as they shared jokesand funny stories and I allowed the tears to flow with sadness and pain as well as laughter. 

That was 23 years ago. I left the business I was in with a mission to educate people on the importance of colon screening. I decided to pursue comedy which led to an international speaking career and discovered a love for writing along the way, becoming an author of five books, all with humor.  My colostomy and all the surgery I had was life-saving. I watched my children grow up and now I am a grandmother of a beautiful one-year old and married to my supportive husband for 30 years. Humor helps. Start looking for it all around you – it’s there! 

Brenda Elsagher is an international speaker, comic, and author of five books. You can find Brenda at You can also follow her at @BrendaElsagher on Facebook or @laughingbrenda on Twitter.

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