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Holistic Humor: Coping With Breast Cancer

About the Author

Kathryn Bouskill holds both a  BA and MA in Anthropology from Notre Dame and Emory respectively. She is currently  completing a Ph.D. in Anthropology and a M.P.H. in Epidemiology at Emory. She maintains an interest in the topic of breast cancer though her current focus has shifted from ethnographic research on coping mechanisms to the globalization of typically American breast cancer awareness campaigns and their social implications in new contexts, specifically in Austria.

The Author, Kathryn Bouskill
The Author, Kathryn Bouskill

The Big Idea

Kathryn Bouskill decided to take a slightly different look at humor and illness. Traditional interest centers around humor as therapy, the idea that laughter can be a form of medicine, and/or the physiological implications of humor. However, Bouskill preferred to explore how humor was utilized in order to cognitively augment a sociocultural reality through social connection and understanding among survivors. While the fear was an unavoidable constant, by focusing on the comedic aspects of the non-lethal aspects of breast cancer sufferers were able to regain a sense of control while navigating their new role. This presented as true across age, race, and SES.

Neuroanthropology:  Joining Humor and Coping

Discovering the presence of breast cancer is a polarizing moment. Life is almost immediately divided in two categories: life before cancer and life with cancer.  Once a lump is discovered the acceleration into the world of cancer is almost exponential. In an exceptionally short amount of time  a woman loses her health and, for many, most of  her defining feminine features. The experience is not only characterized by sickness but by loss of identity, both personal and social.  Any coping mechanism is defined as managing stressors by the cognitive consideration of the situation within the context of the individuals’ life, i.e. their sociocultural  context. Both humor and coping are rooted within such a context, as responding to humor requires social aptitude and understanding. Bouskill notes that humor is instinctual and is a topic that has lacked popularity through the evolutionary-adaptionist lens as it doesn’t have a necessarily affect fitness one way or another. In all actuality the study of  humor presents difficulty through almost any lens, the most glaringly obvious reason being that it is difficult to find in the lab setting.  Humor study has long been a key topic in enthnography as a means of both as a means of social bonding and deviance. Though there is still much to explore what is known it that it creates a discernible distance between an individual and their suffering.

Breast Cancer in the United States: Politics And Pink Ribbons

The U.S breast cancer awareness movement was prompted in response to the shocking stigmatization and victim-blaming that formerly characterized the disease. Breast cancer is now a common concept as noted by how commonplace it is to see anything and everything bedecked in pink ribbon. While these are great strides forward, the disease has also become feminized and all-encompassing. Most male sufferers are overlooked and the attitude towards the disease serves to further define the diagnosed as a cancer suffer before they are seen as anything else

“We Laughed for Hours!”

The interest in this topic was prompted when an inaugural breast cancer support group meeting had an unexpected affect on the participants. Rather than the tales of hardship and frustration, the organizer was met with three hours of laughter. Most of the ethnographic information was taken from the Midwestern support center that hosted that very meeting. Every participant said that they used humor, as defined by each of the survivors, to cope.

Transitioning to “Cancer World”

The transition to the cancer world is as literal as it is metaphoric. It means coming to grips with the realities of suffering from breast cancer, dealing with each and every physical and emotional facet. Survivors from the center and associated biomedical clinic formed deep connections to other sufferers and staff, often communicating outside of scheduled meetings. “Cancer World” becomes a social haven though it continues to be a physical hell. The solidarity is an earmark of their world.  The support center becomes a place where they are no longer required to be the valiant survivor, they can feel their feeling and express them any way they choose. Typically this turns out to be a form of humor that could be considered to the layperson to be morbid, but is simply an expression of their reality. Time also plays a role in the transition, as most sufferers will not be wise cracking about shaving their heads at their first chemotherapy appointment. It is a fluid process of acceptance.

Dealing with “Cancer World”

The psychological stress that accompanies the diagnosis of cancer arises in many forms.  Where does one turn to deal with such an outpouring of change and emotion? Having an outlet along with locale and label assist in modulating such stress responses. Social support leads to lower cortisol levels and overall better quality of life. Humor cultivates the social bonds that lead to these marked physiological and psychological changes. The participants noted that humor allowed them to take their minds off of the negative aspects of the disease, whereas dwelling and complaining only seemed to give is power over their minds in addition to their bodies

Language, Humor, and Meaning

Linguistically, humor alters meaning.  It allows people to joke about the serious as well as the inherently humorous. Within this support center is acted as a mode of changing the minds of those who suffered to a frame of mind that allowed them to accept and cope with their situation. Humor does not remove their stress but it does serve to lessen their anxiety. Though metaphor and idiomatic reference, their orient themselves within their own world as well as the one outside.

Recess and Reward: The Positive  Effects of Humor

Physiologically humor does actually provide physical advantages.  If is looked at as a reward then is can be linked to the  mesolimbic  dipaminergic reward system . It also activates the medial ventral prefrontal cortex,  as seen through fMRI data. Women are seen to experience  greater reward response from the language processing centers than their male counterparts. Additionally coping via humor seems to lower the systolic blood pressure in women. Humor, however, is too complex to be looked at in a purely neurological manner. Activation of neural reward centers is dependent upon social interactions and context. It cannot simply be chalked up to neural reward, as that explanation is far to simplistic.

Conclusion

Humor allows breast cancer suffers a cognitive coping mechanism in three ways: 1.  It is a form of optimism that forces acceptance but also allows mental distance from stress 2. Allows a fluid transition to coping and finally 3. It taps into the human suite of traits that allow for stress relief and social group bonding through its instigation and laughter response.

All three of the above reasons are also challenges to how breast cancer and coping was previously assumed to be understood.