Cancer Is a Laughing Matter | Karen Mills | TEDxChattanooga


Translator: Theresa Ranft
Reviewer: Ellen Maloney Thank you. Yes, for 23 years, it’s been
my profession to make people laugh, and I’ve always encouraged others,
when faced with adversity, to stay positive and look for the humor. In spring, in 2013, the time came for me
to put my money where my mouth was when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I stress “ovarian” because
the breasts get all the glory! (Laughter) And don’t get me wrong,
I mean, I have breasts, and I have friends and family
who’ve had breast cancer, so I desperately want to find a cure. But every once in a while, my ovaries
would like to get a little attention. Yeah, but who am I kidding?
The breasts have always gotten the glory. Never heard anyone say,
“Nice set of ovaries!” (Laughter) Though, regardless what color
the cancer ribbon is, the journey is the same. Mine began one night, when all of a sudden I started having
shooting pains in my abdomen. The cramps were very severe
and lasted for about 30 minutes. I almost went to the emergency room, but, instead, I did
what most people would do, I went to WebMD … (Laughter) … and diagnosed myself with IBS. (Laughter) My annual exam was coming up, so I saw no reason to rush in any sooner. I mean, who hasn’t had cramps? And I honestly didn’t think
any more about it. Six weeks later, when
my appointment rolled around, I didn’t expect my routine checkup
to be anything other than … routine. The nurse practitioner was examining me, and we were laughing
and joking about getting older, when all of a sudden
she got to my abdomen, and all the blood drained out of her face, and she said, “You have a huge mass.” She said, “Didn’t you feel that?” I said, “Well, I knew
that it didn’t matter what I did, I couldn’t get rid of my stomach, but I thought it was just
weight I’d gained from menopause.” She said, “That’s not fat,
that is a mass.” I said, “Well, you better check back here
’cause I can’t get rid of that either!” (Laughter) (Applause) She immediately sent me
for an ultrasound and sonogram, which didn’t tell us anything new. It just said it was, indeed, huge. They thought it might be attached
to the right ovary but couldn’t be sure. She then ordered a CT scan
and a CA 125 blood test. CA 125 measures inflammation in the body, and it can be a marker for ovarian cancer. This, of course, happens
on a Friday afternoon, so I couldn’t get the CAT scan
or the results from the blood test back until the following week. I had a show the next night
in Hickory, North Carolina, and the last thing I was going to do
was sit at home and worry. So I got in my car,
and I headed to Hickory. And driving up there, my mind was racing. And apparently so was my car … (Laughter) … because I was
pulled over for speeding. And the officer said
I was going 70 in a 55. I said, “Sir, I’m really sorry,
but I need a break. I just found out that I have a tumor
the size of your head!” (Laughter) His eyes got big, and I said,
“I’m not kidding, it’s huge!” I said, “I don’t mean to imply
that your head is huge, I mean, it’s perfect for a head, but to be growing in my abdomen, not so good.” He goes, “I’ll just give you a warning.” I said, “I think that would be best.” (Laughter) My friends go, “Already
playing the cancer card!” (Laughter) That following Monday,
I went for a CAT scan, and as I was leaving the Imaging Center, the technician who did the scan goes … “Good luck.” I said, “Really?” The next day, I met with my oncologist
to go over the radiology report, and, again, it didn’t tell us
anything new – just that it was massive. He also had the results
of my CA 125 blood test. Normal range is 0 to 35; mine came back at 11,000. He said he was 98% sure
that it was cancer. And if that wasn’t bad enough,
the radiology report went on to say that my pancreas was unremarkable … (Laughter) … which I was very offended by. (Laughter) I mean, yes, my ovaries let me down, but I have been extremely
pleased with my pancreas. We scheduled surgery
for the following week. There was no reason to biopsy because,
regardless this large obstruction had to be removed. He then talked to me and stressed the importance
of keeping a positive attitude. He said it was as important to my recovery
as surgery and chemotherapy. Of course, I’ve always
believed in the benefits of not only staying positive but also surrounding yourself
with other people who are. Because negativity is its own disease, and it afflicts everyone around it. And carrying around
those negative feelings and emotions, I mean, it would just eat you alive. That’s why I never harbor any ill will. It doesn’t matter what happens,
I forgive and forget. Actually, I just forget,
but it’s the same … (Laughter) … the same health benefits. My doctor then had me sign a release form granting him permission to put
a port directly into my abdomen, if he deemed it necessary
once he opened me up and was able to “stage” the cancer. I said, “Stage the cancer? You’re starting to sound
like this could be serious.” And it honestly was the first time
it hit me, “OK, this is no joke.” And that’s when I first felt fear. And what scared me the most
was not if it was cancer but whether or not
it was feasting on my body. And that night before surgery was intense, just imagining all the possible scenarios and the anticipation of what
the next day would bring. What would the doctor find? What stage will it be? How did I not realize
something was wrong? I should have gone to the emergency room
when I had those cramps. This continuous loop of defeating thoughts
just kept playing in my head. It was actually a relief when morning
finally came, and it was time to go. My college roommate
was a nurse anesthetist who put me to sleep. And I suddenly became extremely grateful that while I was goofing off
in college, she was studying. (Laughter) And I asked her, I said,
“Is it hard putting people to sleep?” And she said, “Oh, no. It’s easy. Waking you up – there’s the hard part.” (Laughter) But it was great having her there because she later gave me a play-by-play
of how it all went down. She said she’d given me enough
anesthesia for a four-hour surgery because that’s what my doctor anticipated. And then he’d diagrammed me
from breastbone to pelvic bone and across. But when he made that first vertical cut,
my right ovary came flying out, the size of a cantaloupe. And then my left ovary popped out
the size of a grapefruit. Turns out my muffin top was a fruit salad! (Laughter) (Applause) And I travel all the time, which means I go through
those X-ray machines at airport security a lot. Don’t you think that at some point
a TSA agent would have pulled me aside? “I don’t see a bomb,
but you’re packing a fruit stand, lady!” Call your doctor. But people still say to me, “I can’t believe
you didn’t have more symptoms.” And looking back, I did have symptoms. I was tired, bloated, and I constantly
had to go to the bathroom. It always felt like
I could never empty my bladder. And that, of course, describes
every menopausal woman I know. And that’s what so difficult
about detecting ovarian cancer is that the symptoms
mask themselves as other issues. But I was extremely fortunate because the cancer
was contained in my ovaries. Because they were so large and they were just kind
of mushed together, that’s why everyone just kept thinking
it was one large mass. And, by the way,
“mushed together” is a medical term that’s used to describe
what’s going on up in here. (Laughter) But I started chemo
four weeks after my surgery. People would comment during
my treatment that I was battling cancer, and I said, “Oh, no,
my doctor took the cancer. I’m battling chemo.” And it is not for sissies. In fact, I sent a letter
to the head of Homeland Security. I said, “The next time
you’re interrogating a terrorist, forget waterboarding,
give him a round of chemo! Check on him in about three days –
he’ll take you to his leader.” (Laughter) But I had one treatment every three weeks, and days three through ten
were always the hardest. And on the days when I felt my worst, my friend Christie
would put on Kelly Clarkson “What doesn’t kill you
makes you stronger,” and we would get up, and we would dance. Now when I say I danced,
I mean that I shuffled around the room. I certainly don’t want
to give the impression that I twerked my way through chemo! (Laughter) Or that I was hooked to the IV, going,
“Watch me drip, watch me nae nae!” “Watch me drip, drip, watch me nae nae!” (Applause) I didn’t have that in me. But just hearing that music and getting up
and moving what little I could, it always made me feel better. And I learned that even
when your body is weak, your spirit can be strong. And it made those difficult days
just a little more manageable. I also learned that chemo brain is real. About three months
after I finished my treatment, I was on my way out of town. I pulled up to the drive
through a SunTrust Bank, and the teller said, “How may I help you?” And I said, “I need to pick up
my prescription.” (Laughter) And the second it came
out of my mouth, I realized where I was. I said, “Now, I just wondered if you’d
run down to Walgreens to get it for me … (Laughter) Let’s just see how good
your customer service is. (Laughter) And another time, I was digging
through my purse looking for my cell phone
while I was talking on it. (Laughter) “I can’t find my phone!” “I don’t know what I’ve done
with my phone!” My friend goes, “Well, just talk to me
on this one till you find it.” (Laughter) But cancer has taught me so much, like never order a wig on the internet. (Laughter) I ordered the Jamie Lee Curtis pixie, and what they sent me made me look
like Joe Pesci from “My Cousin Vinny.” (Laughter) But right after I lost my hair, some friends were having a get-together, and I was going to go,
and I was getting ready, and I couldn’t get anything to look right. I mean, that wig was terrible, and I put on a baseball cap
and that made me look like Ernest T. Bass. And I see other cancer patients
tie a scarf around their head and look like a fashion model. But when I did it, people asked me
to read their palms. I mean … (Laughter) … nothing worked. And I sat down, and I cried,
and I didn’t want to go. And a friend reminded me
that your spirit shines through your smile and not your hair. And, you know, that really hit home because that’s the kind of thing
that I would say to someone else. And that’s when I realized
that it was time for me to walk the walk. And I let go. I let go of my attachment to my hair, and instead of seeing myself
as a cancer patient, I started seeing myself
as a victor over cancer. It was The Chemo Games,
and I was the “Mockingjay.” (Applause) I want people to know that I’m alive and that we are at war. Hospitals are filled with men,
women, and children, and we must fight back. I have a message for cancer. You can attack our bodies,
but you will not destroy our spirit. We will fight you until we can cure you, and we will survive. Okay, so when exactly, Katniss? (Laughter) But I did change my mindset. And whether it’s cancer or something else, seeing yourself as a victor
instead of a victim will change your experience. The next time I saw my doctor
after I’d lost my hair, he said, “Oh, good.
That lets me know it’s working.” So my bald head became
a symbol of my fight, a battle scar, and I wore it loud and proud. Of course, the very last hair
to fall off my body was Gladys … … my devoted chin hair. (Laughter) And when I finished my treatment,
and my hair started coming back, guess who was first back on the scene? (Laughter) Cancer also taught me to live
every day as if it’s my last. Of course, that upsets my family because every day I call them
and say, “Goodbye!” (Laughter) I’ll miss you. But if there is such a thing
as an upside to cancer is that it puts things in perspective, and you realize what’s really important, which is how we treat each other. I have a friend who works
at a nursing home, and she told me a story
about three ladies, all well into their eighties,
who lived there. They’ve known each other
their entire lives, but for 40 years they didn’t speak because of religious
and political differences. Now they sit around the nursing home and they laugh and tell stories
and play games and just love each other. They’re best friends. I truly feel blessed
that cancer came calling and forced me to face my mortality and gave me the opportunity to assess
my life before I was in my eighties, and realize that loving, laughing,
lifting each other up – that’s what matters. People waste so much time and energy
focusing on where our lives separate rather than where they connect. Race shouldn’t separate us
because we’re all part of the human race. Which side of the political aisle
we sit on shouldn’t come between us, because we’re all Americans. You don’t have to be fighting
in the Middle East, to be raging a war against people
who don’t believe the way you do – that’s happening here. Race, religion, money,
politics, gender, sexuality – those are the things that separate us. Let people be who they are, as long as their hearts
are in the right place. It’s uncertain what lies
beyond our time on Earth, but one thing I do feel
pretty sure about – no one will be left out of heaven because they didn’t hate enough. (Applause) We can’t lose our humanity. Let’s choose to be kind
and show compassion and focus on where our lives connect. There’s a great lyric in the song
“Closer to Love” that says: “We’re all one phone call from our knees.” Life can change in an instant. It’s way too short not to celebrate it and to surround ourselves
with love and laughter. I want to leave you today by saying that if you’re ever faced
with this terrible disease, always remember that your spirit
shines through your smile and not your hair, and even when your body is weak,
your spirit can be strong. And whatever you do, never ever,
ever order a wig on the internet! (Laughter) Thank you so much! (Applause) (Cheers)

40 thoughts on “Cancer Is a Laughing Matter | Karen Mills | TEDxChattanooga

  1. Inspirational, to say the least.  Each day, you get stronger.  Each day, your hope is there. 
    I didn't have cancer.  I had open heart surgery for a genetic heart valve defect.  I kept my faith.  I kept telling myself each day afterwards,
    "The worst is over.  I'm gonna get stronger and feel better. God willin' and the creeks don't rise!"

  2. Over 2,500 people watched the video, yet only 5 people (Including my self) commented on this video…

  3. Thank you for this amazing talk. I'm a nursing student about to go into my cancer placement… wonderful reminder to keep my heart in the right place.

  4. Laughter is a cure for everything. Finding humour in unfortunate situations is a step toward overcoming or accepting them

  5. Thank you so much for the laugh! Laughter is such a good medicine, though a bit painful after surgery. Thank you again for sharing and being so down to earth about life's delivery.

  6. Bless you & thank you! My bf was just diagnosed & I'm trying to figure out how to help her from several states away.

  7. This is a fantastic reminder that the spirit can prevail over the body. Survivors are those that can see victory over victimhood. I will be a victor too. Thank you Karen Mills!

  8. This was a waste of a 18 min. I thought tedx was people that were intelligent on a matter not just telling there story. Other than just saying stay positive, there was no content.

  9. If you ever face with this terrible disease, today there is cure with the modern electro medicine is called, the IPP Metatron. Look it up.

  10. CoCa-Coli: A Probiotic Therapy to Battle Cancer – Ketto
    @t

    A group of 15 undergrads from IISER Tirupati, working on an iGEM project aiming to design a probiotic against Colon Cancer. Our success depends on your support.

  11. The waiting and the unhurried concern of the medical people is extremely hurtful and frustrating. Yes there are many patients but when it is you……..you don't care…..you want everyone upfront on top of it right away. That is not reality. I wish is was but it is not.

  12. This is just incredible!! Thank you Karen Mills and TedxTalks! I was hugely blessed to catch my early stage kidney cancer as an incidental finding this spring, but I feel just like Karen does and will be sharing this with my healing groups ASAP!! Glad to see Karen is still doing great (I checked her website and will attend one of her performances this year.)

  13. This is WONDERFUL!! But, I will just say, Amazon has great wigs these days! Especially if you want to have fun with a pop of color!!! 💜💜💜

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *