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Cancer Humor – The New York Times

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“In-Between Days” tackles the early onset of menopause. Doctors — making it sound “like no big deal” — did not prepare Ms. Harrison for its frustrating consequences. After an oophorectomy, the removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes, she suffered from vaginismus, painful contractions of the vagina especially during sexual intercourse. She tries to give other women a sense of agency by illustrating how she alleviated the condition by means of workouts with dilators.

According to Ms. Harrison, cancer tests our cherished beliefs and finds us wanting. A vegetarian, she had always opposed experimentation on animals. But in a clinical trial, she finds herself relieved that her drug was tested in vivo, probably on cats and dogs. By mocking what she calls her hypocrisy, the cartoon “Animal Testing Y/N” reminds us that cancer can surface our desperate longing to sustain life by any means.

Animal testing is the subject of one of Max Ritvo’s more eccentric poems in his posthumous collection “Four Reincarnations.” Mr. Ritvo, who died at age 25, had been given a diagnosis at 16 of Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare pediatric cancer. In “Poem to My Litter,” he considers the rodents injected with his cancer cells and with AIDS to ensure that they could not fight the tumors off. Researchers subsequently try out chemicals on them that might ultimately work on him.

Within this study of mice and men, Mr. Ritvo pictures the litter as his kids. Though he first named them Max 1, Max 2, “now they’re all just Max”: “No playing favorites.” They seem “like children you’ve traumatized / and tortured so they won’t let you visit.” Toward the end of the poem, swelling rage and fear cause the poet to identify with his brood. He too is caged, his pride gone along with his fur.

“But then the feelings pass” and “nothing happens to me,” he writes. The poem concludes with a tongue-in-cheek swipe at cancer’s capacity to erode our faith in confident assurances from higher-ups:

And if a whole lot

of nothing happens to you, Maxes, that’s peace.

Which is what we want. Trust me.

As Max Ritvo knows, the gap between what we want and what we get cannot be bridged by the avuncular language at hand.

Devoid of self-pity, cancer humor proves that raging fear passes, when transmuted through ironic camaraderie — with friends or prospective readers or lab animals — into emotional clarity. The gift of these creative works: They foster a sense of community with the living and also with the dead. We are not alone in what we go through.

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