Cancer isn't funny, right?
January 24, 2013 8:26 PM   Subscribe

How to not overreact when people joke about cancer?

Ok, so I'm kind of in the heat of emotion right now because I just logged onto Facebook to see a friend post a status which reads, "Like [organization's page] or we'll all get cancer." I used to belong to the organization for several years; it was an intimate group of people who perform on stage. My mom died last year of cancer and it was the worst thing that has ever happened to me by far. I went through months of grief counseling and I'm now on antidepressants and I'm in a good place, but right now I am SO FUCKING ANGRY I feel like walking to that girl's house and ripping her hair out. I commented on the status by saying "This isn't funny" and I hid the story from my newsfeed.

I'm not really sure what my question is. I guess I just want to know how to keep my cool when people make insensitive comments about serious things like cancer in jest. I really want to send her a message or something but I don't want to be on a soapbox all the time, but you know what, I had to change my mom's diaper because her disease turned her into a helpless feeble creature who suffered immensely, so don't fucking make a joke about it.
posted by thank you silence to Human Relations (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
She probably made the comment unthinkingly and is now beyond mortified/humiliated if she knows anything about your background. Don't send her a message when you are feeling so emotional - I think your comment will be lesson enough, and what you are really upset about is the fact that your mom died an unfair death of a terrible disease - totally understandable, and awful, but yelling at people with poor taste on the internet isn't probably going to make you feel much better.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:32 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry for your loss. But the way through it is to remember that people being insensitive is not the same as them being mean. They are (hopefully) not doing it TO you, they just weren't thinking about the consequences of their words. Even though it might feel like they meant it personally. I think you did the exact right thing.
posted by gjc at 8:33 PM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

You have every right to be angry -- it is a fucked up joke and it made me angry too. And while I've lost people to cancer, none were blood relatives. So get as angry as you want -- it's a perfectly valid emotion.

The trick of society is how to not let your emotions interfere with the most logical approach, which is probably to let it rest since you already made your point. Hopefully she got the point and deleted it.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:37 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

This henceforth shall be known as a "2 Broke Girls" joke. Which is to say, a non-joke that uses shock words out of context in a way that sort of seems funny maybe but only if you're clueless. Like jokes about rape or how gay something is.

I think "this isn't funny" is a perfectly valid and sufficient response, and assuming your friend is a decent human being, she probably feels like a total heel now. Just please try to remember that things like this are never intended to be personal or mean-spirited. They're just thoughtless. You handled this just fine, and I'd encourage you to do exactly the same if it happens again.
posted by phunniemee at 8:39 PM on January 24, 2013 [10 favorites]

I think your response was perfect. There's no obligation to be on a soap box, it probably won't make you feel any better, and what you said almost certainly drove your point home quite well. Maybe tomorrow or when you feel a little less angry than you do write now, you can craft a couple of short, pointed responses to this kind of thing so you can have something in your back pocket next time (because people behave badly all the time) something like this happens. But, again, "This isn't funny" is a pretty good start.
posted by looli at 8:43 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can't force people to stop making jokes that are in bad taste. If you want, you can calmly let the person know (1) that you don't find it funny and (2) why. Just saying "This isn't funny" isn't convincing. Explaining that it's unfunny to you because of your personal experience might be more helpful (though also potentially mortifying, as the first comment points out). It's not really possible to police everyone's sense of humor to make sure no one tells any offensive jokes. Most people would have a hard time trying to be funny if they couldn't touch on any topics that are upsetting to anyone; humor typically has to do with the disturbing side of life. For instance, have you ever noticed how often people joke about death in the abstract, and almost no one seems to find this offensive? I think people are so comfortable joking about death — more so than most people are comfortable joking about specific illnesses — because it's something that's universally terrifying to everyone on earth. So we try to find some sense of relief — communal relief — by making light of it. Some people feel that it's fine to do this on the more specific level, but to others this crosses a line that must not be crossed. There is no one definitively right or wrong place to draw the line. You can tell people not to make any jokes about drunkenness because alcoholism ruins lives, but many people just aren't going to go along with this. I think you have a right to let close friends know that you're not comfortable with jokes about this topic (or other topics), but with a forum as broad as Facebook, you're never going to be able to get the word out to everyone. You're more likely to succeed in dealing with this by either blocking it out somehow, or making peace with the fact there are always going to be upsetting things out there in society that are beyond your control, than angrily struggling to exert control over them.
posted by John Cohen at 8:45 PM on January 24, 2013 [13 favorites]

I don't find cancer jokes to be funny either (not that I ever did, really) after losing a close relative. Usually I say nothing or "knock it off/that's enough, please" if it's repeated and depending on familiarity and the medium. No need to elaborate why if they don't know. It's part of life to be sometimes saying regrettable things or colorful statements that hit others the wrong way. I certainly have been on the wrong side of it before, so I do as I'd want done and get through the situation with my wishes expressed, if need be, as quickly as possible.
posted by michaelh at 8:46 PM on January 24, 2013

It doesn't bother me. I've personally survived cancer, and I've lost friends and family members to it. Although I wouldn't say something like that if I knew someone had suffered a recent loss, since it's such a personal issue, but we all cope in different ways. Having a morbid sense of humor helped me through my own cancer as well as periods of grieving. Death and disease have always been with us. We should be sensitive to others and be careful not to hurt people who are grieving, but we should be allowed to laugh about what scares us the most.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:49 PM on January 24, 2013 [47 favorites]

My friend who recently underwent a scary, seemingly endless bout of cancer and is just now bouncing back would probably find that hilarious (ie, she makes cancer jokes all the time).

Doesn't mean you don't have the right to be offended or upset. I think your response was fine. But I think it's best to just learn to let this stuff roll off you. Just disengage if it bothers you. It's only Facebook.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 9:06 PM on January 24, 2013 [11 favorites]

I'm sorry you had to go through that. Nobody should ever have to.

I am deeply affected by cancer at the moment. I'm not going to try to compare it to what you've gone through, because we all have our own battles, but I'm certainly affected. I also constantly joke about cancer. There's something to be said for spitting in its face, and it's how some of us cope. I am however very careful and aware of my audience.

Before being affected, I doubt I took it very seriously. There are still a lot of people that have the luxury of not taking it seriously, and I'd expect a bit more glibness from them; they're welcome to it.

Have some empathy for them. They aren't trying to be cruel, they aren't going through what you're going through, and hell, they probably can't even begin to understand what you're going through. They didn't mean it to be personal, and you need to worry about your own peace of mind. Remember that you're going through a very, very hard time, and try not to let yourself get so stressed, it's not something that you need, and that kind of anger isn't going to help you or them, or anyone else.

We all have our own comfort zones, so you can talk to your friends about it, and help them to understand yours. Or you can press the block button on Facebook. Hell, you can entirely distance yourself from them. You can avoid media that upsets you, and there's no shame in that. You can avoid people that upset you, and there's no shame in that either. Find people you can talk to. Find ways to let off stress. Hell, do therapy if you think it'll help. It's your battle, and you need to take care of yourself and your own peace of mind.

Again, I'm sorry. It's not fair. Just take care of yourself, that's what matters.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:08 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Very sorry about what happened to your mom.

Regarding this situation, and not tasteless jokes in general:

Gallows humor can be therapeutic, and I get a lot of mileage out of it in my own life, about my own issues. But I'm careful about that humor, and try not to upset others with it. I'm not interested in triggering someone's worst miseries.

Let's be real about this: Your friend doesn't sound like she was making the joke because she was whistling in the dark about her worst fears, or trying to process the horrors of cancer with dark humor. She was just being a sophomoric dumbass. There's nothing deep going on with that joke. She's just acting like a silly little twit. People are entitled to make jokes like this, but it's good for them to run into opposition now and then. It's good for people to be reminded that not every Shocking Edgy thing they say is automatically acceptable and hilarious to everyone.

I second treehorn+bunny. If this friend knows anything about you -- and she's not a total jerk -- she now knows that she said a stupid thing. You've done your part here. It's really okay to just avoid this kind of crap right now, because you're still mourning in a raw way. Don't get tangled in a demoralizing Facebook argument about cancer jokes. You're going to end up so upset that you'll make yourself physically ill.
posted by Coatlicue at 9:18 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

One thing that may help is to remember that while it is an insensitive joke it may not mean they do not understand your loss or the visceral fucking horribleness that is cancer.

My dad died from cancer, it still is the worst thing I've ever been through. I know where you are coming from. But we always joked about it if we could. Me, dad, my family, whoever. Yeah, it's gallows humour and it strikes some people as wildly innapropriate but damnit, cancer has won if we can't laugh in its face.

I'm not saying it is necessarily what has happened in this instance but you will find people making tasteless jokes about illness and death sometimes. Bear in mind that they may know exactly what they are making light of and may have a good reason for it.
posted by deadwax at 9:22 PM on January 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm of the opinion that anything, properly done, can be funny, and that includes cancer. My father was the funniest motherfucker on the cancer ward and his last words to me were, "I may not be here tomorrow, sweetie...I mean, I might be in Mexico."

Your friend's joke is just lazy and stupid, and lazy, stupid jokes about serious subjects are almost never funny.

I totally know that simmering, violent, hair-ripping rage, but that's actually just grief. It's the rage at an unfair, cruel, stupid, heartless world mostly populated by grinning idiots who surely don't deserve their bliss. Because that is how the world looks after you watch someone you love die. It's gonna look that way for a long, long time, and I wish I could tell you that one day you'll look around you and Everything Will Be Fine...but you won't, and it won't.

What will happen is those rages will get smaller and smaller. In the meantime all you can do for yourself is breathe, punch soft things, (if you're me, develop moderate alcoholism) block the idiots wherever possible, and when someone sticks their foot in their mouth, you can decide whether to explain or not. Hell, one day you might even be the one cracking a joke now and again. You never know.

I'm really sorry that you have to go through this.
posted by like_a_friend at 9:27 PM on January 24, 2013 [59 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all, I really appreciate all your perspectives. I am calm now and at last check the post has been deleted.
posted by thank you silence at 9:36 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's a big difference between this flippant "cancer as boogeyman" kind of joke and the humor people who have experienced/are experiencing cancer use to make sense of that experience, in my opinion. The world would be poorer without Gilda Radner's or David Rakoff's or Julia Sweeney's or Tig Notaro's* great, cathartic humor about cancer. The world would miss nothing if everyone stopped using cancer as a shallow punch line.

So I think you did good to give your friend the feedback that you found that joke unfunny and hurtful. Feedback is how people evaluate whether to keep doing what they're doing, or to do things differently.

*Tig Notaro's live set from this fall where she talks about being diagnosed with breast cancer is available on iTunes now. So amazing. I laughed, I cried, I did this really unattractive thing where I was laughing and crying at the same time, it's just that raw and real and good.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:38 PM on January 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm sorry about your Mom. I also totally understand why you are angry, and you have every right to your feelings.

Furthermore, as a person who laughs at tasteless jokes -- that joke isn't even funny.

One last thing that I wanted to say (but I see that some people have already touched upon it): Some people deal with pain through humor. My uncle died of cancer a couple of years ago, and he was joking about it until the very end. I was super uncomfortable at the time and really didn't think anything was very funny about it. With the passage of time, I look back on those jokes, and they were great. I wish I could have seen the humor then.
posted by murfed13 at 9:41 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

If the post has been deleted, it's possible that someone else already set her straight. Focus on that kind stranger, and know there's plenty of people who truly care and are just as (rightfully) sensitive to it as you are. When you think about it, there are more caring people out there than there are people who make dumb comments. (My family has a mean streak of hereditary, aggressive kidney disease, and every time someone jokes about loving someone but just short of wanting to give them a kidney, I get stabby.)
posted by mochapickle at 9:46 PM on January 24, 2013

For what it's worth, I think your response was absolutely on target. Tell the person it's not funny then opt out of further discussion.

I'm sorry for your loss and for your mother's suffering.
posted by 26.2 at 10:00 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

He's just bad at writing jokes.

His basic premise is: "Like this page or else [something horrible will happen.]"

"Like this page or else the mutant space unicorn will devour the Earth." That works as a joke (or close enough), because we all know that's probably not going to happen. You need to exaggerate beyond the point of reality before it gets funny. Someone getting stabbed? Not funny at all. The Black Knight getting all his limbs hacked off in "Holy Grail?" Hilarious. Cancer is something that can and does happen to millions of people. So, not funny.

So, if it helps, think of him not as an insensitive asshole, but just someone whose joke-writing skills could use a polish.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:22 PM on January 24, 2013

I think the way you handled this was perfect. I know you felt horrible and upset but the way you acted was totally classy, which is actually rather hard to do when you're so (justifiably) angry. So go you.

And the part where it's now been deleted makes me think your voice was heard, so that's a good outcome. And you didn't alienate your friend in the heat of the moment, also a good outcome. The part where you felt so shitty about it all isn't a good part and I'm really sorry she was so thoughtless and stirred up all those feelings for a really lame, unfunny joke.

You could still have a calm conversation with her about how this made you feel and why if you feel that it would be beneficial to her and to your friendship for her to understand better. The amount of detail you've given her is totally sufficient to get your point across. But you could also let it lie if that's just going to make you more upset, particularly given she deleted the post. It's up to you. Give it some time to feel less raw either way.
posted by shelleycat at 12:46 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

You did over-react a little bit, but I can totally see why; if she'd posted that same joke ten years ago, long before your mom got sick, you might have found it merely tasteless and tacky but not so personally offensive. However, considering the recent loss of your mother, your reaction is understandable --- I admit I reacted pretty much the same when a chirpy grocery-store cashier was wishing every customer a cheerful "Happy Mother's Day!" just two days after my own mother's death: she didn't MEAN to hurt, but boy it sure did.

*IF* you're sure you can remain calm, go ahead and discuss this with your friend, although since she's deleted the post she might have already gotten the point. If there's a likelihood of you breaking down or going ballistic, on the other hand, it might be better to either skip that conversation (at least for now) or maybe ask another friend, someone who understands your viewpoint, to talk to the joke-poster.
posted by easily confused at 4:18 AM on January 25, 2013

You neither over- or under-reacted. Different people have different responses to stuff like this. My mom died of cancer a few years ago and I am terminal now (different cancer). There are some statements in these circumstances that really piss me off too-- for example, people who tell me that positive attitudes or ridiculous diets will heal. Things that piss other people off (I have had friends who get very annoyed by prayers) don't bother me a whit. I don't assess either set of responses as better or worse.

What matters is, if you feel it is necessary, being open and frank without pointing your finger at your friend, and saying "you are acting like an ass." For example, I recently got interrogated (pretty literally) on the phone by someone who was clearly checking on whether I had applied the treatment protocols she knew nothing about (save, presumably, from reading wikipedia). I nicely told her not to go in that direction and when she continued, told her I wouldn't speak with her any longer, and hung up.

Point being, the issue is not assessment of your emotional response, but how you handle it. It seems clear that you were respectful.You don't need to "keep your cool" but rather keep your ethical standards. If you need to be honest be honest, but simply do so honestly rather than angrily.

I hope that makes sense. Obviously it's something I have thought about and processed a lot. Feel free to message me as well.
posted by miss tea at 4:55 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I guess I just want to know how to keep my cool when people make insensitive comments

Cancer isn't a particularly angrifying topic for me, but there's others that set me off. I've found it therapeutic to hide the update (as you did), and also to change how much I see from that person—either set their updates to "Only Important" or hide ("unfollow") them entirely. When you hide a post from someone one of the links that comes up is "Change what updates you get from [name]" where you can do that.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:00 AM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think your response was perfect even if you hadn't just lost someone to cancer. If you find yourself on the lookout for inappropriate cancer jokes though, be mindful that what you're really mad at is the cancer, your mother's suffering, your loss. Being mad at people in situations like this is sometimes just an outlet for your anger/grief. (again, I think you were totally spot on in your response) like-a-friend's very good comments ring true for me too.

FWIW some people actually do deal with their own grief through humor. Said humor only makes other people laugh when you're a naturally funny person, like Julia Sweeney. My sister and I, not naturally funny people, got nothing but uncomfortable silences in response to the "dead dad jokes" that kept us sane. But just throwing it out there, that if you hear something that seems to be off-color and insensitive, it may not be rudeness or cluelessness at all.
posted by headnsouth at 5:08 AM on January 25, 2013

When people have made "jokes" that aren't funny to me, I've talked to them - usually pretty gently, since if someone I like, who is basically a good person and who I know does not want to hurt me, made a remark in poor taste, my assumption is that once they realize why it is in poor taste, they will stop. Among friends, at least, this has always been the case.

"Julia, you probably saw that I commented on your Facebook status - the thing is, for me (and maybe a lot of people who've lost someone to cancer) it is such a painful and serious topic that we cannot joke about it. I know you absolutely didn't mean it to be painful, but it is - so no more cancer jokes around me, okay?"

I have had someone ask me not to say in jest "or I will punch them in the face!" because that person had grown up in a violent situation and experienced a hell of a lot more actual punching in the face than I have. Naturally, I stopped using violent language around them, and have generally dropped it out of my regular repertoire to avoid bothering people who don't feel comfortable telling me. (Although I have been known to say "so and so deserves a poke in the snoot", which is twenties-esque for the same thing but much less visceral.) Anyway, when that person made the request, I felt bad - partly embarrassed but mostly bad for upsetting them, and in the long run I was really, really glad that I knew not to do something which hurt a friend.

If it helps to think about it this way, you can remember that by telling someone "please stop using this hurtful and thoughtless language" you are actually doing them a big kindness.
posted by Frowner at 5:16 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cancer's not funny. Neither is joking about gays, blacks, women, etc. People are social creatures, and respond to reactions of approval or contempt. You can be sincere and explain that their joke is tactless, tacky, unkind, inappropriate and really not amusing. You can say "Dude, seriously, you're joking about cancer?? Ouch." You can give the person a serious look. Your response was in scale, calm, and effective. Go, you.

I'm so sorry for your loss. Fuck cancer.
posted by theora55 at 6:58 AM on January 25, 2013

There are ways to make jokes about cancer that are funny and okay. Wishing so-and-so gets cancer is not one of them.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:08 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anyway, when that person made the request, I felt bad - partly embarrassed but mostly bad for upsetting them, and in the long run I was really, really glad that I knew not to do something which hurt a friend.

Exactly. Your brief "Cancer isn't funny" may even have been all it takes to nudge your friend.

I still remember it so clearly: years ago, I was describing to a friend how busy and frustrated I was, and I finished with the phrase "or I'll blow my brains out!" She didn't even say anything, just looked at me with meaning, and I remembered: oh no. I am speaking to someone who, before I knew her, learned that he beloved brother killed himself with a shotgun. I have used a sloppy, thoughtless conversational hyperbole and suddenly triggered my dear friend's grief all over again.

I felt awful, and I learned something valuable: that whatever disastrous event you're intending as an absurdly over-the-top metaphor, there may well be someone in hearing range who's been through the actual disaster, so it's kind and smart to speak more thoughtfully.
posted by Elsa at 8:08 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

(follow-up: and I hope your friend will learn the same lesson.)
posted by Elsa at 8:09 AM on January 25, 2013

"I bet you wouldn't find cancer so funny if you had it, or loved someone who did. It's only funny when people you don't know have it, right?"
posted by LonnieK at 9:20 AM on January 25, 2013

Cancer is something that nearly everyone fears and joking about it is a way to cope with that fear. It's also very easy to tell a joke that will offend someone, and unfortunately sometimes you end up telling a joke that offends your audience. Similar to Elsa's example, my dad died of cardiac arrest - literally dropped dead - and I don't get offended but am sort of struck by how often people casually joke about dropping dead, but the idea of dropping dead is pretty scary and the kind of thing that doesn't happen to anyone you know...until it does...and you realize it could happen to you too. Humor is just how some people(including myself) deal with that.

I'm not going to tell you how to react to this sort of thing, and I agree that the joke was thoughtless and tasteless, but I think you will feel better if you just let this sort of thing roll off your back and move on. You can control how you react to this sort of thing, but you will never be able to control what other people say.
posted by fromageball at 4:03 PM on January 25, 2013

"Don't take things personally" is a great philosophy to live by, however insensitive that may sound here. You don't want to suffer through life walking about with a raw, exposed nerve that causes you to short circuit and go off on people every time they say something that triggers your pain. We don't live in a world where people censor themselves perfectly or think about every possible person they might harm by making a classless joke. However horrid, unkind, and insensitive her post seemed to you, it was obviously not her intent to be malicious. She may be foolish to throw that word around and use it in such a way, but you taking it personally is your mistake. She made an ass of herself by saying that, and emotionally intelligent folks will recognize that when they read her post.. knowing that should be enough.

I too lost someone to cancer, it's a tremendous burden to carry, but you have to get to a healthy and peaceful place so that you aren't, as they say, 'triggered' every time someone drops a crappy one liner about illness, death, etc. It happens all the time. I cringe when I hear comedians using illness and abortion for material, but it's incredibly common. I've learned that you absolutely cannot walk around taking everything personally in life, you'll ruin yourself. Saying you want to "rip her hair out" is pretty scary, you need to make peace with what you went through before you lose your cool and make an ass of yourself. This world is most definitely not a nursery.
posted by OneHermit at 11:13 PM on January 25, 2013

if you read it carefully, it's not making fun of cancer. the joke is that your friend likes something so much that she/he is making a threat she/he know she/he will not follow through with, but feels so passionately about the issue that she/he would like to. it's saying "everybody do this or [bad thing] will happen", except we all know that [bad thing] doesn't follow from what they want us to do, so the best interpretation is suppose to be that it's simply an expression of the passion for the thing they want us to do. "everybody do this or we'll all be murdered" "everybody do this or we'll all be raped" it has nothing to do with cancer, so don't be worried about it.
posted by cupcake1337 at 11:38 PM on January 25, 2013

« Older Should I cancel my date?   |   Breaking Societal Norms: The quintessential... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.