Finding Humor in Difficult Situations
- Mark Steel, a 63-year-old comedian, has been diagnosed with throat cancer after finding an abnormal lump in his throat, but he’s handling his diagnosis well with the support of his family and his ongoing humor.
- Steel underwent surgery this week and will soon reveal what stage his cancer is and the treatment plan he will soon start.
- Throat cancer is a type of head and neck cancer where cancerous cells begin in the throat, voice box or tonsils. Some of the main risk factors for this disease include smoking, drinking alcohol, a diet lacking in fruits or vegetables, acid reflux disease and the human papillomavirus (HPV).
- Stand-up comedian Jesus Trejo agrees laughter can heal pain, saying, “The effects of it just reverberate through your body, and can change an already bad situation into a better one.”
- And Dr. Dana Chase, a Gynecologic Oncologist at UCLA Health, says emotional health is associated with better quality of life through a health challenge.
- Cancer patients with a positive attitude are more likely to have positive outcomes, according to Colorectal Surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Dr. Zuri Murrell.
Luckily, Steel has optimism and humor on his side as prepares for treatment, something SurvivorNet experts say is helpful to have when coping with disease.Read More
Steel admitted to directing his concerns to Google, asking “Why is one side of my neck suddenly much larger than the other?”
“Most of the answers suggested glands do this to fight off an infection, so there’s nothing to worry about ‘Unless it hasn’t gone down after two weeks,'” he recounted learning from the internet.
However, after waiting two weeks, the lump appeared slightly bigger, prompting Steel to make an appointment with his doctor. The doctor ultimately booked Steel for a scan after feeling his throat, and a few weeks later he was told by a radiologist to come into the hospital for a followup appointment.
Expert Throat Cancer Resources
- 7 Signs of Throat Cancer That Aren’t As Obvious as You’d Think; Knowing What to Look for Is Key
- Get the Facts: HPV Can Cause Cancer in Men Too
- Majority of Throat Cancer Diagnoses Are Caused by HPV – Here’s What You Need to Know
- Having Oral Sex With Multiple Partners Can Increase Risk for Throat Cancer, Says New Study
- Millions More Americans Now Eligible to be Vaccinated Against HPV-Related Cancers
He recounted the radiologist telling him “It’s very enlarged” … “it’s very uneven, and hard. I’m booking you for a fine needle aspirational biopsy.”
Steel was then urgently referred to get a biopsy by his doctor, and as he waited to get it done, he admits to feeling uneasy about the unknown.
“Throughout this time I’d told my son, my daughter, my agent and various friends about the story, each time feeling a slight sense of failure, because a comic depends on leaving any audience feeling at least a bit jollier than they started,” he wrote. “And there seemed to be no way of telling this without causing anxiety and worry and very little joy. I couldn’t make these gigs work at all. Maybe a cancer scare is more suited to authors of thrillers.”
Despite, somewhat thinking the lump on his neck was due to sleeping on a bad pillow, when his doctor conducted the biopsy, Steel heard him calling the lump a “very hard tumor,” and endured the “terrifying” days ahead waiting for the results.
Before obtaining his biopsy results he was booked for an MRI and CAT scan, and called to have a repeat biopsy done after receiving an email saying his result had been lost.
However, he later received another call from someone telling him to go in for “a repeat biopsy the next day ‘to see what stage of cancer you have.'”
“The biopsy had been found at a different hospital and the results had come back from an MRI scan and a CAT scan and I had to go to another hospital the next day, to learn the details, which he couldn’t tell me, though he could tell me the lump was definitely a secondary cancer which meant I had cancer in at least two places,” he explained.
After noting how “astonishingly calm and supportive” his partner had been throughout this time, Steel said that when his doctor spoke with him about his results, he said, “We think the primary cancer is a lump in your throat and that is very treatable.”
Steel was informed about the surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and PET scans he would need to undergo amid his cancer battle, as well as taking an estimated six months off from performing.
Although Steel will have to take some time to focus on his health, he’s realized “there is nothing like cancer to make you feel the depth of warmth around you.”
He explained, “My son, daughter, partner and so many friends have taken me to appointments, listened to my complaints, lived each moment, took the piss, told me they can’t wait for my voice to not work for a few months, talked about cricket and been utterly fu*ing magnificent in every way and I adore them all even more than I ever did.”
Steel’s PET scan revealed the cancer had not spread out of his next and throat area, meaning the probability of a successful combination of treatments was good.
He published his cancer story on his website just days before his operation on Monday, which he said would confirm where his cancer is located and what type of treatment he can start.
“So that’s my current state of affairs. I have cancer, but it’s a cancer that can be got rid of. I feel like there’s a leopard in my house, that’s locked in a room,” Steel concluded. “I’ve contacted the leopard authorities and they assure me they are used to dealing with leopards like this, and they have a plan for removing the leopard, though it will take a while, and once in a while I can hear it growl.”
In a Twitter post on Monday morning, Steel comically followed up with, “I had the first surgery this morning for this slightly unwelcome cancer. All seems to be going to plan, due to the magnificent staff at St George’s but I have these tubes poking out, so I look like a car in my home town of Swanley that the locals are syphoning petrol from.”
I had the first surgery this morning for this slightly unwelcome cancer. All seems to be going to plan, due to the magnificent staff at St George’s but I have these tubes poking out, so I look like a car in my home town of Swanley that the locals are syphoning petrol from.
— Mark Steel (@mrmarksteel) October 9, 2023
Understanding Throat Cancer
Throat cancer is a type of head and neck cancer where cancerous cells begin in the throat, voice box or tonsils. Some of the main risk factors for this disease include smoking, drinking alcohol, a diet lacking in fruits or vegetables, acid reflux disease and the human papillomavirus (HPV).
So, one way to decrease the chances of developing the disease is to get the HPV vaccine.
The American Cancer Society recommends that boys and girls get the HPV vaccine between ages 9 and 12. The organization also stresses that teens and young adults through age 26 who are not already vaccinated should get the HPV vaccine as soon as possible.
Dr. Jessica Geiger, a medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, explains the link between throat cancer and HPV in a previous interview with SurvivorNet.
“There are no screening guidelines to screen for throat cancer, unlike cervical cancer with pap smears. And there are no standard tests to determine if you harbor the (HPV) virus,” Dr. Geiger said.
“However, there is no concern that you’re going to spread this cancer to your partner or to anyone else, because at this point your partner has already been exposed to the virus and likely cleared it.”
There’s no yearly screening for throat cancer, so doctors often discover the disease when a patient sees them with symptoms that may point to it. Some symptoms include:
- A cough
- Changes in your voice
- Difficulty swallowing
- Ear pain
- A lump or sore that doesn’t heal
- A sore throat
- Weight loss
It’s important to note, however, that these symptoms are not exclusive to throat cancer. Still, you should always see a doctor if you have any changes to your health.
Managing Your Mental Health and Finding Joy
It’s apparent Steel loves performing and making people laugh. Even during the start of his cancer journey, her his writing suggests he finds joy in bringing levity to the difficulties life brings.
This positive attitude will undoubtedly help him through times of adversity.
“A positive attitude is really important,” Dr. Zuri Murrell, a colorectal surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, previously told SurvivorNet.
Dr. Murrell tells SurvivorNet he often sees the connection that a positive attitude can help with a patient’s resiliency in the face of some tough challenges, like cancer.
“I’m pretty good at telling what kind of patient is going to still have this attitude and probably going to live the longest, even with a bad, bad disease,” Dr. Murrell added.
Dr. Dana Chase, a gynecologic oncologist at UCLA Health, echoes the sentiments of Dr. Murrell.
“Working on your emotional health, your physical well-being, your social environment, your emotional well-being, definitely working on those things and making them better are important and can impact your survival,” Dr. Chase told SurvivorNet.
WATCH: How To Manage Anxiety During Stressful Times?
New York-based psychologist Dr. Marianna Strongin has some helpful tips to help you maintain good mental health and reduce stress if you find yourself facing adversity like Steel.
Dr. Strongin says it’s important to have a healthy relationship with your anxiety and get to know it rather than fear it, avoid it, or push it away.
“By learning more about your anxious thoughts and tendencies, one can begin to answer their anxious thoughts even in moments when there aren’t any answers. For cancer patients, the worry thoughts tend to be, ‘Will I survive?’ It’s important to let those thoughts come in and really be able to tolerate them before answering them. This is a very powerful coping skill,” Dr. Strongin explained.
Dr. Strongin also recommends medications to help with anxiety and depression if other approaches are not as effective. You should talk with your doctor about what options may be the best fit for you.
Questions for Your Doctor
If you find yourself facing cancer and need help with your emotional health, ask your doctor the following questions:
- If I have moments where I feel overwhelmed and anxious, are there any therapists I can call?
- Are there any support groups you recommend I consider joining to help me when I need someone like-minded to talk to?
- Are there any medications you can prescribe to help ease my anxiety or possible depression?
- When do you suspect my emotions will subside to levels near where they were before my diagnosis?
Laughter & Positivity Through Challenges
It’s interesting to note, that according to the National Library of Medicine, research has shown that the amount of pain medication needed for patients is reduced after they watch funny movies.
And perhaps humor, like Steel makes sure to have in his life, could also help when someone is dealing with the pain that comes amid a health challenge.
The importance of positivity amid tough times has been seen through stand-up comedian Jesus Trejo in Long Beach, California.
Trejo became a caregiver for both of his parents after his mother was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor and his father was later faced with colon cancer. But instead of panicking and focusing on the devastating nature of the situation, the only child stepped up to care for his parents with love and laughter.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Trejo opened up about how he put his career aside to care for his parents in their time of need while making time to smile along the way.
“The only advice I have for anyone watching this is laugh, and laugh often, laugh at yourself. Don’t take yourself seriously. Things are already bad. Because once you do that, it’s a game-changer,” Trejo told SurvivorNet.
He also says the laughter itself might be brief, but “the effects of it just reverberate through your body, and can change an already bad situation into a better one.”
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff