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Sometimes, with breast cancer, humor can be a blessing or a curse

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Chicago Tribune reporter Lisa Black, right, with her late sister, Lynn Schmidt,  who died of  breast cancer. (Courtesy of family via Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Chicago Tribune reporter Lisa Black, right, with her late sister, Lynn Schmidt, who died of breast cancer. (Courtesy of family via Chicago Tribune/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

Breast jokes were hilarious that first year, as I gawked at the colorful participants in the Susan G. Komen breast cancer walk.

Hairy guys wearing tutus and double-D brassieres pedaled by on bicycles. Women sported team mottoes on their backs and caps: “Save the tatas.” “Boobylicious.”

Along the walking route, we stopped to have our picture taken in front of the “Pair Tree,” where fake bosoms swung from the branches like flesh-toned Christmas tree ornaments.

My sister had just been diagnosed and I was focused, determined that she would beat this thing. She was 43. Neither of us were big fans of the color pink, but we adapted accordingly.

The next year, I walked again, but grief changed my views on most everything.

It occurred to me that you rarely see jokes about prostate, brain or lung cancer.

Lynn had died only nine months after a furious fight against the disease. She had wanted her breasts surgically removed, but ran out of time. They had turned against her, harboring a monster inside.

There is no humor in that.

Some argue that breast jokes make light of cancer, and are demeaning and offensive to women.

Along my own journey, I concede that I have mixed feelings. When given the choice of laughing or taking offense, I often veer toward laughter, even when it makes me slightly uncomfortable. Because life is short, and I grow tired of raging against a culture that is headed in so many other wrong directions.

I also find that my perceptions change depending on who is telling the joke. All the power to a breast cancer survivor, for instance, whose shirt reads, “Yes, they are fake. The real ones tried to kill me.”

I’m a bit more leery about a teenage boy wearing a bra on the roadside while holding up the sign: “Show me your boobs.”

I saw this young man at the last walk and bought some of his buttons. Moms and daughters were posing for pictures with him. Cars honked. I wondered what his story was, and whether he was raising money for breast cancer for his mom, his grandma — or maybe his dad.

It’s hard to judge, when so many of us use comedy as a defense mechanism. Humor can also ease anxiety about tough subjects, if doled out with proper education.

In high school, our health teacher asked our all-female class to pass around “Betsy Breast,” a spongy fake prop, to feel it for lumps. It was embarrassing, but we got the point.

So I hope I’m willing to chuckle someday if I come across someone wearing a T-shirt that says: “I had a brain tumor. What’s your excuse?”


Susan Cummings: 'Adventures of a One-Breasted Woman'

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

In 1992, Susan Cummings was a 47-year-old, struggling actress in New York City when she was diagnosed with early- stage breast cancer. The story that Cummings, now of Bernardston, tells in her new book, “Adventures of a One-Breasted Woman: Reclaiming My Moxie After Cancer,” begins in a medical center where she has just had a mammogram. The technician peeks in …

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