Using humor to process life, surviving survivorship and the trials and tribulations of dating NED (No Evidence of Disease)

Using humor to process life, surviving survivorship and the trials and tribulations of dating NED (No Evidence of Disease)

I am easily amused. Ask my family and friends, and they will tell you that I am the queen of “dad jokes” (we call them “mom jokes” in my case). As defined by Merriam-Webster, a dad joke is: a wholesome joke of the type said to be told by fathers with a punchline that is often an obvious or predictable pun or play on words and usually judged to be endearingly corny or unfunny. I’d disagree with the unfunny part, but as I already mentioned, I am easily amused and might not be the best judge of “funny.”

Scientists have a variety of ways of assessing our experience of humor, but the most prevalent is the Humor Styles Questionnaire (HSQ) developed by Dr. Rod Martin and his graduate student Patricia Puhlik-Doris. The HSQ has been used in 125 published studies and has more than 500 scientific citations. This questionnaire gives a score in each of the following areas:

Affiliative Humor: Tendency to share humor with others, tell jokes and funny stories, laugh along with others, use humor to facilitate relationships, put others at ease and not take themselves too seriously.

Self-Enhancing Humor: Tendency to maintain a humorous outlook on life even in times of stress and adversity, cheer themselves up with humor.

Aggressive Humor: Tendency to use humor to disparage, put down, or manipulate others; use of ridicule, offensive humor and not concerned about how their humor might impact others.

Self-Defeating Humor: Tendency to amuse others at their own expense, self-disparaging humor; laughing along with others when being ridiculed or teased; using humor to hide true feelings putting on a happy face even when feeling unhappy inside.

Studies using the Humor Styles Questionnaire have shown that scoring high on the two positive humor styles (affiliative humor and self-enhancing humor) has been linked with various positive health outcomes, such as being happier and having healthier relationships. On the other hand, having high scores on the negative humor styles (aggressive humor and self-defeating humor) can have a negative effect on one's health. Dr. Martin’s research interests in humor and laughter began in the early 1980s and continued throughout his 30+ year career as a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Western Ontario, and you can read more about his work here.

I took the HSQ and scored “very much above average” in the affiliative humor and self-enhancing humor – 92nd and 98th percentile, respectively. I knew it already, but the data only confirmed it: Humor is my coping mechanism of choice. And I never needed it more than after my diagnosis with breast cancer in 2011. While I certainly shed a lot of tears of sadness throughout my diagnosis, mourning my life BC “before cancer” that was forever changed, I laughed just as much. Some laughs were private chuckles, disbelief at my new reality (was I really in a small room with a plastic surgeon, holding two breast implants in my hand, deciding which would become my new chest?). Other laughs were stifled giggles (did my three year old daughter just point and yell “hey baldy” at an older gentleman, translating my family nickname of “baldy mommy” to an unsuspecting stranger?). There were distracted laughing spells to forget about the brevity of my current reality (watching “Arrested Development” with my husband on our iPad as I sat through a chemo infusion, cackling at the Bluth family shenanigans). And there was laughter (and often tears) of joy, when margins came back clean, tests came back negative and more time to enjoy life was granted.

Pictured: Molly on her last day of chemo with her "Yes they're fake, the real ones tried to kill me" t-shirt, which garnered a lot of laughs in the infusion room.

I wrote an essay about my struggle with the label of “survivor” right around my 5-year cancerversary, and I wanted to share it with you again here as 1) it still holds true today and 2) it will give you a window into how humor continues to help me navigate my cancer survivorship. I’d like to introduce you to my boyfriend, NED (No Evidence of Disease).

Dating NED

I never thought I'd have a boyfriend after marrying my husband. I'm not that kind of girl. I'm a big believer in monogamy, fidelity and finding someone who enjoys sitting on the couch and binge-watching Netflix shows just as much as I do. A soulmate, if you will. I was lucky to find that co-couch lounger in January of 2000 and married him in 2004.

And then my chest turned on me and everything changed. In October of 2011, I felt a lump in my breast, which turned into a breast cancer diagnosis. After the traitorous culprits were amputated ("Off with their heads!" I liked to shout randomly, to the chagrin of strangers all around Portland), I sat in a recliner every three weeks for three months and had poison pumped into my veins through an IV that was always so difficult to place (evidently, my veins were not privy to my retaliatory personality or they might have cooperated a bit more). My binge-watching, couch-lounging partner was with me every step of the way. He held my hand before I was wheeled into the operating room for surgeries. He sat next to me during every chemotherapy treatment (where, to no surprise, we binge-watched old "Arrested Development" episodes while the IV dripped into my veins). He just generally stepped up to the plate and helped prevent my world from completely falling apart during that frightening time. Even though he was terrified, himself.

And then NED came into my life. No Evidence of Disease. There is a lot of discussion among people who have been treated for cancer about the proper term to describe them during and after this life-changing experience. "Survivor" is clearly the front-runner. But when do you become "a survivor?" Is it the minute you are diagnosed? Is it when your cancer is removed via surgery? Do you need to wait until after all of your treatments are complete to have technically survived? And what if the cancer comes back, and you're living with cancer? What about those friends who didn't survive? Those who were taken (usually far too soon) from us? While I completely respect and embrace my friends who identify themselves as "survivors," that word has always left more questions than answers for me. So I decided to date NED.

NED is the love that I never expected to find, the kind of love that comes along when you're not looking for it. My relationship with NED is intense; I go to sleep thinking about NED and wake up thinking about NED. There are very few moments when NED doesn't exert influence on my life, whether it's the way that I interact with my family and friends, the way I try to embrace the quiet moments of life more freely, or the way that I think about my role as a mother to my two girls. NED is always with me, as is the idea that my time with NED might be fleeting.

I love NED, I truly do, but that doesn't make dating NED easy. We go in for relationship counseling every six months at the oncology office where I wait patiently while I'm tested to see whether NED will be sticking around for a bit longer; NED holds a lot of control in our relationship, which takes some getting used to. There was one session in particular where I had the sinking feeling that NED might be dumping me, but after a scan, was relieved to learn that NED still had feelings for me. I've never loved NED more than on that day!

And how does my husband feel about my relationship with NED? I already knew that he was secure in our own relationship, and he's not the jealous type, but I didn't realize the special relationship he would also develop with NED. The love between those two is palpable. My husband summed up his feelings about NED best when he told me, "Molly, I hope NED is a part of our lives forever." I couldn't agree more. Love you, NED!

Molly pictured with her husband Scott, also a fan of her boyfriend NED.

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