by Moe Prince
In “Holistic Humor: Coping with Breast Cancer” Kathryn Bouskill discusses how humor is used within breast cancer survivor support groups as a method of coping. She does a great job of addressing how this tactic is used socially, cognitively, linguistically, and neurologically. This was done through an ethnographic study of a support center located next to the public hospital where many of the survivors were treated. This included semi-structured interviews and participant observation. The support center studied held both planned and unplanned group sessions where often times the group of women who participated would be laughing and cracking jokes about their situations for the entirety of the meeting. Since this was done in an urban area, she also was able to collect testimonies from women of different races, ages, backgrounds, and socioeconomic statuses. Though they were all different, humor helped them band together in the face of an extremely stressful situation.
Though breast cancer is an extremely well broadcasted disease today, it used to be highly stigmatized. Through the work of political, feminist, and corporate groups awareness skyrocketed and has given many women more control over their treatment and provided them with large amounts of public support. Though this push has taken away most of the shame associated with a breast cancer diagnosis, it hasn’t done much with providing a way for survivors to cope or give them an outlet to openly discuss the difficulties they face. Support centers have been instrumental in giving just that. Bouskill used the term ”cancer world” to describe the new experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer. When someone is knew to “cancer world”, other survivors are instrumental in helping them understand these new transitions and how to deal with the stress. That’s where humor comes in. These women use humor to bond over the non-life threatening aspect of their new lives like loosing their femininity. It creates stronger social bonds because they all understand what one another is going through since they’ve been through it themselves.
Cognitively, humor is used to separate oneself from the stresses of breast cancer. By making jokes about their situation, they are in a scary situation and taking back control. Humor allows them to acknowledge the hardships and decide that they don’t define them. They can use it as a type of defiance for the situation they were forced in to. In a neurological setting, survivors describe humor as a mental break, even though something of the opposite is actually occurring. Humor is “identifiable within neurological centers of positive emotion that allow the mind to perceive an emotional reward” (Bouskill, 228). Women who use humor to cope have showed signs of lower blood pressure and the social support they gain is associated with lower concentrations of cortisol. Complaining about their situation, on the other hand, is associated with high levels of cortisol.
Linguistically, humor provides survivors with the opportunity to share their experience and help new comers to the “cancer world” do the same. They teach each other coping mechanisms and provide support that doesn’t limit itself to the support center. Many women are able to build lifelong friendships and support systems through this process. Humor can also be a bit exclusive as many people who have not experienced having breast cancer feel like it would be inappropriate for them to laugh at the struggles faced and can feel very uncomfortable when the jokes are made.
Bouskill did a wonderful job of looking at a variety of aspects and influences when it comes to humor. She believes that it’s a disservice to focus on just one without the others since it’s a very complex web leading to a multitude of results. Some questions that I did have while reading this article dealt with the cultural aspect. Humor worked really well in the setting studied, but if this study were applied to a different culture or was conducted in another country, would humor still be as effective? Bouskill described how only some parts of the disease were found humorous, whereas subjects like death and the possibility of passing on genes to loved ones were not. How are these subjects addressed and coped with? For survivors who don’t find their situations humorous, how do they cope?