"The Cancer Club" -- Christine Clifford

Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2003

By Christine Clifford
WebMD Live Events Transcript

Funny? Finding humor in the midst of your battle with breast cancer may not be easy, but survivor Christine Clifford found that the more she laughed, the better she felt. Clifford joined us in the WebMD Student Lounge to chat about laughing in the face of cancer.

The opinions expressed in this transcript are those of the guest and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD University. Our guest today is Christine Clifford, breast cancer survivor and founder of The Cancer Club.

Christine, obviously you have a great sense of humor. How did you discover that it was your sense of humor that would allow you to get through your diagnosis and treatment?

Clifford: I learned very early in my diagnosis stage that when my friends and family learned that I had cancer, they didn't know what to say, and they didn't want to say the wrong thing, so they often ended up saying nothing. I learned fairly quickly that humor is a great connector of people and I wanted people to surround me and support me when I went through my cancer experience. So if I used humor to put people at ease and make them comfortable with my situation, then they embraced me as having a positive attitude and wanted to help me get through it.

Member: Is it OK for family members and friends to joke about hair loss and barfing and all, or can only those who have gone through it make jokes about it?

Member: Oh, absolutely the family can get involved in the humor. The more the merrier! I do want to point out that finding the humor in your journey comes at a different time for everybody, but once the cancer patient has allowed humor back into their life, it's definitely a family affair and everyone should participate.

Member: Do you think hair barrettes are an appropriate gift for a chemo patient? Haha.

Clifford: I think they'd be great for when their hair starts coming back, which gives people hope that it will come back!

Moderator: There is a funny cartoon in your book, No Hair Day, showing two boys giving their mom a rabbit hat to cover her bald head. Was this based on a real event?

Clifford: Yes. I'm an avid collector of rabbits. I have over 3,000 of them in various shapes, sizes, and forms. I've been collecting them ever since I was a little girl. And my boys, who were 10 and 8 at the time of my diagnosis, searched high and low to find this special "rabbit ears" hat for me that said "No Hare Day" on it. Of course I had to assure them, "Thank you, Tim and Brooks, it's so me." I was highly challenged, however, when they made me wear it to the grocery store just to prove to them how much I loved them.

Member: My sense of humor broke the ice with people who didn't know what to say. It made me feel like myself at a time when I was distant from who I am.

Clifford: Oh, I absolutely agree with that. The process for getting through cancer treatment is such a long one. It's usually a minimum of six months and sometimes years to get through. If you don't find some laughter in your cancer journey, it will make it that much more difficult and prolonged.

Member: What do you say when someone tells you breast cancer is no laughing matter?

Clifford: I would agree with that, that there is nothing humorous about finding out that you have cancer. But to reiterate what I just said, laughter is an everyday part of life and if you're going to be battling cancer for six months to a year, then it's natural to want to get back to as normal a state of existence as you had before you were diagnosed.

Member: I shocked my mother with my sense of humor the day I told my sister over the phone that it was a "real hair-pulling day" since I was pulling hair out in clumps.

Clifford: I can relate. It happens to all of us who have chemo.

Member: And as long as you keep humor in the process, the process can become easier to handle.

Clifford: Exactly. And you make a very good example of someone who has found the positive attitude that is so critical in getting through the treatments.

Member: I found laughter was like a little escape.

Clifford: Even in everyday life, if you're not battling cancer, laughter is an escape. The reality is we all have "things" going on in our lives. It doesn't necessarily have to be our cancer anymore. It could be side effects from the treatments we had. It could be a divorce, the loss of our job, the death of a loved one, or environmental catastrophes. We all have things going on in our lives and we can't always change that "thing" in our life, but the one thing we can change and do something about is our attitude, and how we chose to deal with that "thing" on a go-forward basis.

Member: So what exactly is The Cancer Club?

Clifford: The Cancer Club is a company that markets humorous and helpful products for people with cancer and their families. We have over 40 gift items for cancer patients including books, videotapes, audio cassettes, jewelry, PC software, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and we produce a newsletter that comes out quarterly, featuring humorous and helpful articles from cancer patients all over the world. You can learn more about The Cancer Club by visiting our web site, www.cancerclub.com.

Moderator: How can someone get on the mailing list for the newsletter?

Clifford: You can call our 800 number, which is 1-800-586-9062. You can click on our web site and download an order form as well.

Member: The newsletter is fantastic!

Clifford: Thank you so much. We love to hear that.

Moderator: Before the chat started, some folks were sharing their stories of mets. How do you find the light side of such news and such a state?

Clifford: First of all, my prayers go out to anyone who has ever had to battle cancer a second time or more. And while this has not happened to me personally, two years ago I was told I had metastatic bone cancer and spent five days believing that I did have a recurrence. Despite the deep grief I felt upon hearing the news, I did feel comforted knowing that I had learned many things during my first journey with cancer. I had complete confidence in the doctors that I had used the first time around. I felt totally supported by my family and friends who had been there for me the first time. I was encouraged that there were new drugs, new protocols, and new clinical trials that weren't there five, six years prior when I had started my journey. But last of all, I had my sense of humor and knew that I could continue to surround myself with the love and laughter of others going through the same experience.

Fortunately for me, my diagnosis was incorrect. I had chemotherapy-induced osteoporosis and had broken a rib inadvertently. But again, I would only emphasize that I meet people every day of my life that have battled cancer two, three, even four times and still have a zest for life and still have a positive attitude. They have been my role models.

Moderator: "You're writing a humorous book about cancer? You're sick." That was one of the most ironic cartoon captions in the book.

Clifford: The story behind that cartoon is four weeks after my surgery I had already started chemotherapy and radiation therapy. I woke up in the middle of the night and went downstairs into our family room and on the spot started madly sketching cartoons of things that had happened to me in the six weeks since I had learned I had cancer. I drew over 50 cartoons that night. I had never drawn. I was not an author. I was not a humorist. I went back upstairs, crawled into bed, pulled the covers under my chin, and thought "What was that?" I now refer to that as my Twilight Zone experience.

I woke up the next day and went to a bookstore and the public library. I walked up to the information counter and asked for all of the humorous books about cancer. The clerk at the bookstore peered at me over his glasses and said, "Humorous book about cancer? You're sick." And I pulled a notepad out of my purse, wrote down his words, and thought to myself, "That's another cartoon!" I then went across the street to the public library where the clerk obligingly looked it up in her computer for me, dragged me down an aisle, pointed at the top shelf, and said, "There it is, the humorous book about cancer," which also turned into another cartoon in my first book, Not Now, I'm Having A No Hair Day.

Moderator: So did you much trouble convincing a publisher that there was a humorous side to cancer?

Clifford: I had one of those Cinderella stories about getting my book published. My cartoons were sitting on my kitchen counter when my realtor came over and saw them and asked me what I was going to do with them. I told him I didn't know. So he suggested that he show them to his next-door neighbor, who just happened to be a former president of the American Booksellers Association. A few weeks after she saw my cartoons, she called me and said, "I've got good news and bad news."

I said I'd take the bad news first. Her response was, "I'm not going to be able to publish your book because the good news is I think you've written a best seller and we need to find you a publisher who can publish a large quantity of books in its first printing."

She gave me the name of three publishers and I sent my cartoons off to them all on the same day. Two days later, one of the publishers sent me a FedEx letter asking me to stop soliciting other publishers, that they would be forwarding me a contract by the end of the week. One year to the day that I had my surgery, I sat in a publisher's office and signed a contract for not just one, but two books for using humor to recover from a cancer experience. My second book, entitled, Our Family Has Cancer, Too, was written especially for children.

Moderator: Can you talk a bit about your new book, Cancer Has Its Privileges: Stories of Hope and Laughter?

Clifford: The Cancer Club was started in 1995, the newsletter and the humorous stories. And immediately I started getting mail from cancer patients all over the world, detailing their humorous stories and escapades. I saved all of the stories that were sent to me and have used hundreds of them in our newsletter. Finally, about a year and a half ago, I realized I had enough stories to put together another book, and Cancer Has Its Privileges was born. It's a little like a Chicken Soup book in that it contains over 100 stories from other cancer patients. I've put my trademark cartoons to their stories but have also included a lot more of my personal experiences. There is an entire chapter devoted to caregivers, entitled Things I Can Do to Support a Loved-One Who Has Cancer. It also has an extensive resource guide to products and services -- unique, one of kind products or services, primarily created by other cancer patients.

Moderator: Your humor is amazing in light of not only your own experience, but also that of your own mother.

Clifford: I can only look back now and think that this is my destiny. My mother went through a cancer experience over 30 years ago now. She was 38 when she was diagnosed, there was no support, the surgery was radical; you weren't even allowed to say the word cancer in those days. My mom sank into a deep clinical depression and never came out of it. She died at 42. I now believe that I had to witness the loneliness and despair that she faced for me to come out on the other side because I realized that no matter how long I had to live, whether it was one year, four years, 14 years, or 40, I wanted to embrace my life and live each day as if it were a gift.

The fact that my work has gone on to help so many others is the icing on the cake, because I would be lying if I didn't say that my No. 1 objective when I was diagnosed was simply to live. It's been the connection with so many other cancer patients and their families that has been the true gift, the blessing, and the privilege of my cancer experience.

Moderator: Did you see the Cathy cartoon yesterday? She says to her mom, "It's you-know-what awareness month." The implication is that her mom couldn't talk about breast cancer. Today she reminds her mom it only takes 20 seconds to schedule an appointment and 20 minutes to get a mammogram.

Clifford: I laughed out loud when I saw that in the paper because it was so true.

Moderator: Apparently your use of humor for dealing with breast cancer has been adopted by others!

Clifford: Absolutely. There are over 5,000 members of The Cancer Club, from India to Israel to Germany to every country. And it's a universal way of dealing with the hardship that we've all had to face. There's a quote in Cancer Has Its Privileges from a Cancer Club member named Les Dolecall in Staton, Ore. "Thank your for promoting the humorous side of all this. And thanks for letting those of us who do see humor know that we are not terribly irreverent or odd or tasteless, just coping with the challenge in our own ways."

Member: Have you ever had a doctor who could lighten up about this stuff? I've always found my doctors to be deadly serious!

Clifford: I've found a fabulous group of oncologists. And while they may not be back-slapping, knee-jerking humorists, they have allowed the humor into their practices. Many of the stories in Cancer Has Its Privileges reflect other doctors worldwide who have found humor. The reality is that doctors want their work to be taken seriously and it makes them nervous to use humor when they're not sure it's appropriate.

Member: I met a woman who is a breast cancer survivor who told me a very funny story about her husband. She had a lumpectomy that really reduced the size of one breast. She was concerned that her husband would find her deformed. He said, "Honey, it's like being with two women at the same time!" It made her feel so much better.

Clifford: I have a story, very short, from the Privileges book, by a woman named Jeanne Philman from Bell, Fla: "When I was told I would have to have a bilateral mastectomy upon receiving a diagnosis of cancer, my husband hugged me and said, "When we hug, our hearts will be closer."

My husband, John, told me when I was crying over losing my hair, "Don't worry honey, there's just more of you to kiss."

Member: Have you found that people that had a sense of humor before diagnosis, retained it after they found out, and people that didn't have a sense of humor before have not developed one?

Clifford: I think that I've definitely seen that. But I think people's whole perspectives on life change when cancer comes into their life and I'm a perfect example of that. I was not the jokester or the one telling funny stories before my diagnosis, and now I've developed a worldwide reputation as being the cancer humorist. So, I think people can definitely go both ways.

Member: I am on my third journey through cancer, but I cope the same way I did the first time -- a positive attitude and laughter help quite a bit.

Clifford: Good for you. Feel free to visit The Cancer Club website, www.cancerclub.com, and add your name to our Prayer List. We have very strong prayers and will pray for your full and speedy recovery. Keep that positive attitude.

Moderator: Christine, we are almost out of time. Do you have any final comments for us today?

Clifford: For me, personally, cancer has been a gift. Even if I could turn back the hands of time and change anything in my life, it would not be my diagnosis of cancer. It has given me the unique opportunity while I'm still here on Earth to feel the love and support of my family, friends, caregivers, and complete strangers. It has awakened new passions and creativity I never knew I had inside of me -- to draw cartoons, to write books, to speak professionally, to develop my own company. It has taught me the true meaning of friendship. It has strengthened my faith and has reminded me that it's better to give than receive. And lastly, it has led me to all of you out there, fighting and facing cancer. My story is no different than any of yours.

I believe in my heart that everyone who has cancer is a hero. If you are diagnosed with cancer, research all of the possibilities. Don't be afraid to ask people for help. The love and support that your family and friends will want to give you can absolutely get you through this experience on a day-to-day basis.

And lastly, don't forget to laugh!

Member: Thank you, Christine. You are an inspiration to us all!

Moderator: We are out of time. Thanks to Christine Clifford for joining us today.

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