The Healing Power of Comedy
Today’s post was written by Sara Jade Alan, a sarcoma survivor and author.
In 2005, I was in my twenties and living and performing comedy in New York City. I had just completed an eight-month yoga-teacher training program when I discovered a lump on my outer left thigh. I thought it would be nothing, but I went to see an orthopedic doctor about it to make sure. He coolly told me: tumor. I remember walking out of his office onto the blustery NYC street, the giant X-ray envelope whipping around in my hands like a sail—as if to warn, the winds of change—and feeling frozen-all-over, terrified.
A few weeks later I had scans and an open biopsy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and, the results came back CANCER. I had a large (23cm) low-grade chondrosarcoma that took up ¾ of my femur. I felt so young and healthy—a cancer diagnosis was crazy! My first doctor said my case was unusual and she took it in front of the tumor board at MSKCC. She reported that there were as many opinions on the best course of treatment as there were doctors in the room. With the guidance of a medical advisor, Gwendolyn Stritter, I ended up seeing five top orthopedic oncologists—four in the US and one in Germany. None of them agreed on the course of treatment, but they all agreed I would never fully bend or straighten my leg again and would always walk with a limp. The choice for treatment felt impossible.
Between all these visits, I was grateful for the months I’d spent practicing meditation and learning about impermanence as part of my yoga training. I was determined not to let the overwhelming unknown suck me under or force me to make a decision out of fear. I think it’s empowering to find humor in a situation you can’t control, so I started writing down everything that I found absurd about my situation and tried to find the punchline in it. I ended up writing a one-woman show called Bone-a-fide: A Tumorous Comedy and performing it at the People’s Improv Theater in NYC a month before my surgery.
When I met Dr. Healey, Chief of Oncology at MSKCC, I liked him immediatley. And when he used the word “improvise” to describe the unorthodox procedure he wanted to perform on my leg, I knew I had found the right surgeon for me. He is kind-hearted and amazingly talented.
During the ten-hour surgery, Dr. Healey resected my femur, treated the bone with cryosurgery, and re-implanted it into my leg. The tumor had curved my bone, so he fitted it with a specially- designed titanium plate that matched the exact curve of my femur and would keep my leg supported as it healed.
Recovery required me to be on crutches for a year. Imagining the difficulty of navigating NYC on assisted walking for that long, my then fiancé, now husband, and I moved back to Denver. I started writing my first novel, about a teen improviser who copes with a cancer diagnosis by entering a comedy contest and finding her lifeline through the punchlines. I was surrounded by so much love and support during my diagnosis and recovery, and I wanted to write a story about how life is often two things at once—messy and beautiful, heartbreaking and inspiring—and how we get to choose which side of this duality we put our greatest focus on.
I’m happy to say that, one, I was extremely lucky and regained full rotation in my leg, I don’t have a limp, and I’ve remained cancer-free. And two, the book I wrote, A Messy, Beautiful Life, was recently published. I wanted to make the comedy contest in the book come to life. The main character, Ellie, is part of an improv group called Spontaneous Combustion, and there just happens to be a local Colorado high school group with the same name. So I’ve teamed up with them to bring the Teen Comedy Contest to Smoky Hill High School on November 17. A few other local high school improv groups will compete, and there will be professional improv comedians serving as judges and giving out awards in several categories. It’s bound to be a fun and supportive night of comedy. And I’m grateful to the awesome members of Spontaneous Combustion for being willing to have their ticket sales benefit Sarcoma Foundation of America!
For more information on Sara’s upcoming Teen Comedy Contest fundraiser, visit https://www.curesarcoma.org/event/teen-comedy-contest-sarcoma-awareness/.