While going through cancer for the first time in 2015, Olivia Clarke discovered that, surprisingly enough, cancer had a funny side: whether it was humorous situations in the doctor's waiting room or people's reactions to her diagnosis. “I wondered if other people going through cancer also experienced this humour," says the Chicago-based Clarke, a former journalist and editor turned PR and communications professional. In 2017, Clarke created a nonprofit and an Instagram community, Humor Beats Cancer, a space for survivors of cancer to share funny ideas, thoughts and stories about cancer. Being a stage 4 metastatic breast cancer herself, Clarke’s community struck a chord with cancer patients who resonated with the humour. The nonprofit also extends grants to patients to cope with medical bills and otherwise.
Today, the community with over 8,000 fans sees plenty of engagement with patients and survivors sharing their stories, a portal of strength and hope. With the 5th anniversary coming up, we speak to Olivia Clarke, founder and board chair of Humor Beats Cancer
What has your journey of curating and working on the page been like?
It’s been such a life-affirming and inspiring experience to see so many people with amazing strength and resilience push through cancer to continue to live life. And it has inspired me to see how humour and story-telling can bring people all over the world together to laugh and discuss important topics related to cancer. It is sad when one of our regular contributors hits a rough patch from cancer or when it comes back or even sadly dies. But overall, it has really helped me deal with my cancer and reminds me not to lose my identity to cancer. It makes others feel less lonely because they have a place to share their humour and stories and feel less alone.
How has the community on the page grown over the years?
When people discover us and realise we are what they need in their lives, it is so magical. Some are reluctant to share their stories until they realise it really benefits them to laugh during such a dark time.
I often tell this story when I’m speaking to groups. This one woman messaged me on Instagram and said there is absolutely nothing funny about cancer. I told her I understand, and I got it. I have shed my fair share of tears about this stupid disease.
But she wrote me back the next day and asked if I thought the following story was funny. Her treatment made her see double out of one eye, and she, unfortunately, discovered that at work. The only quick solution she had was to cover up that eye with a sticky note. She worked and drove wearing a sticky note over her eye for days until she decided to buy an eye patch. I told her, yes, that is indeed a funny story, and she got what we were doing.
How do you tread the fine line between humour and sensitivity?
If you are seeing your cancer friend in person, you have to be aware of whether the person needs humour, a hug, sympathy or a shoulder to complain and cry on. As I was doing this, I also realised that I need to be careful not to say one cancer is worse than another. Also, we obviously don’t make fun of how people look or write or what they are feeling. I don’t like joking about death on social media because death is what is constantly on our minds. But I joke about it with my family. It’s about knowing your audience and your cancer friend and what they are up for each day. And it changes daily. We try not to be mean in our humour, but we do laugh at some of the weird things people without cancer or cancer muggles (from Harry Potter) say to us as a way of showing people what can be better responses.
What have been some of the most heart-warming messages or stories from the community till now?
I get a lot of comments about how they found our nonprofit just when they needed something to make them smile. They talk about how connected they are with others in the community -- all-around humour and writing. It makes me think of a woman who lived in my building who I learned was facing cancer. I dropped off a care package to make her smile. Shortly after she passed away, I ran into her mother by chance, and she wanted my help giving away her daughter's wig. So we found someone in the Humor Beats Cancer community who could use it and donated it to her. It made the family happy during such a tough time and helped another person in our community.
Any observations you've made about breast cancer and about having an awareness month dedicated to it?
When you have breast cancer, the treatment really permanently alters your body in ways that are noticeable to the world, and that is so hard. We often lose our hair and one or two breasts. Some people choose to go flat, and some people choose to get implants. All of that is so emotional. More people write about losing their hair than any other topic because, as a woman, our hair is often part of our identity. You also feel with all types of cancer a loss of control over your life. You feel that cancer is dictating your entire life. As a breast cancer patient, I'm happy about the month, but every time I see one of those pink ribbons or a building decorated in pink, it is a reminder that I can't escape cancer, and it makes me so sad.
Breast cancer is not the only cancer out there. I feel like every month is an awareness about cancer. And instead of spending so much money on the stuff to decorate your office or building, consider fundraising and donating to a variety of organisations. Push for more research and keep the awareness going all year.