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What I learned from cancer

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'There's something funny about a lot of sad things'

-- The Choir, About Love


I am standing in line at the grocery store and ahead of me I overhear a conversation that goes something like this:

"Would you like to contribute to cancer?" the fresh-faced clerk asks, pointing to a box next to her till.

The reply, from a woman who appears to be in her late 60s, takes me by surprise.

"Cancer has taken from me a little at a time," she remarks, an edge in her voice. "My breast, my colon, my lung, and now my daughter. I have already given to cancer so, no, I do not want to give more."

I can relate to that feeling. The feeling of shaking your fist at an opponent you cannot see, but who sees you, ready to take from you whatever possible. Cancer is a disease so prevalent in North America some statistics say one in every 40 people is currently battling it. These are our friends, our family members, ourselves. And cancer will relentlessly take until there is virtually nothing left. And then, it will take that last bit of us, our final breath.

In the past 25 years. I have had cancer twice. Both times it was colorectal cancer, and both instances required the removal of a portion of my large intestine, so now I have very little of it left. And I have shaken my fist at the demon in the darkness. But, I have also laughed in the face of the night terror, the thing that is a little less scary when the lights are on. I have heard the stories of hope, the stories of courage, the stories of light in a dark place.

There is something funny, it seems, about a lot of sad things.

I went to university with a guy who had bone cancer and had to have his right leg amputated above the knee. But, as a laugh in the face of the cancer that took it away from him, he did not have a "natural" prosthesis fitted. Instead, he got a shiny peg leg, one with a removable rubber cap that he could put on in the winter. He always won the Best Pirate Costume contest at Halloween parties.

I've learned to find joy and humour in the cancer journey, this amid the hardship and tragedy. Enough to carry on when life seemed dark.

There's something funny.

In 1993, I was on Day 7 (or so) of my first hospital captivity. By this point, all of my tubes had been removed except for the drain. This drain, a tube running into my abdomen to the internal wound site, had a ball on its exterior end that collected whatever the healing process was producing inside of me. The nurse said I could not go home with this necessary object still attached to me, although I had my appetite back and my strength was returning. A compromise was struck: It was time for a night out on the town.

During my high school and early university years in Saskatoon, I had discovered two entertainment sources that provided much laughter for me and my friends. First, there was the weekly improv night at the Broadway Theatre, called the Saskatoon Soaps. Based in a fictional highrise apartment, this comedy troupe kept us in stitches (no pun intended) in their hour-long romp through an improvised script each Friday at midnight.

Second, there was Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan, an annual and creative Shakespeare production put on by a local troupe each summer in a big tent by the river's edge. The dialogue stuck close to the original, but the settings were novel. I recall specifically their production of Romeo and Juliet, which toured Canada presenting the Montague family as English-speaking and the Capulets as French, complete with fully bilingual dialogue (I thought of asking for half-price admission because I only understood 50 per cent of what was said!). I also remember an excellent rendition of Othello, which was set in pre-Confederation Canada, in which Othello was not played as a Moor, but rather as a First Nations character, played by Tom Jackson, a much-renowned aboriginal actor (while Jackson was always the pride of Canada, in my mind he really came into his own when he took a leading role in an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation).

Back to the hospital, where I awaited my night out. A few of my friends had invited me to a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. As the nurse issued my evening pass from lock-up, exacting a promise to return that evening, she inquired as to where I might be going:

"Going with some friends to a Shakespeare play."

"Which one?"

"Midsummer Night's Dream."

"Comedy? I heard that it was really funny. Don't forget your pillow!"

A few days earlier, one of my jailers (OK, caregivers, but I felt like I was in prison) had given me a pillow with the admonition, "Your stitches are particularly fragile at this point. If you get the urge to sneeze, be careful, 'cause you could tear some of them out with violent contractions. If you have to sneeze or cough, put this pillow across the incision and hold tight. This will keep everything together."

I guess the nurse giving me my evening pass speculated that laughing had the same potential to create harmful tension as did sneezing or coughing.

Most of that play is now a blur at this distance, except for my vivid memory of its comedic value. It was so funny that I was sure that I was going to explode right there in the bleachers. Imagine the irony of a guy being "unseam'd... from the nave to the chaps" in the midst of an audience at a Shakespearean comedy. I think I missed half of the play because I was alternating between uproarious laughter and clutching my pillow to my abdomen, howling in pain, trying to prevent my insides from becoming my outsides.

Having survived the evening and feeling fully refreshed from a night out filled with friendship, laughter, and the occasional wondering whether I'd have to be rushed back to the emergency, I tried to sneak quietly back into my room. I had missed my curfew, which oddly enough felt a lot like coming home late when I was in high school; when I'd get into the house relieved that everyone was asleep, only to find my dad sitting in his bathrobe sitting on the couch, ready to confront me about where I'd been, whether I forgot my watch at home, and where in the city I could have been where there was not a phone available. The night duty nurse was indeed at her post as I walked by the nursing station, and I heard, "Kinda late, isn't it?" A murmured "Yes Mom" under my breath was followed by "Sorry" to her as I returned to my room.


Dennis Maione is an author and motivational speaker living in Winnipeg. He has had cancer twice and is just completing his first work of creative non-fiction, What I Learned From Cancer. On April 12 he launched his crowdfunding campaign, a project to raise support to send the book to print in August. Check out the book website ( for more information about how you can support this project by purchasing a copy of the book in advance. For more excerpts from the book, search for What I Learned From Cancer on Facebook. You can contact Dennis at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2014 A4

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