Cancer isn’t funny to most people diagnosed with the disease. But for Maria Falzone, it’s what keeps her going, since she may only have a few months to live. Falzone is showing cancer who’s the boss and living each day with laughter… lots of laughter.
“Humor gives me a sense of control,” she explains. “It takes away the fear. There’s nothing I can do about my diagnosis; the only thing I can do is adjust my attitude and how I’m going to be with it.”
Falzone, 56, of Baltimore, is a renowned comedian who has headlined top comedy clubs around the world like The Comedy Store in Los Angeles and the Comedy Cellar in New York, and is the creator of a humorous and informative sex education program for college students called Sex Rules! Last year, Falzone was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare bile duct cancer only affecting about 2,000 people a year. After treatment, when more tumors showed up on her scans, doctors told her it was terminal.
Yet, Falzone has managed to find humor in the situation. In fact, she fired her first oncologist because he just didn’t get her jokes. When she realized her second doctor liked her gallows humor, she said, “Here’s my dude. We’re not going to cry and be so heavy hearted about it. He’s going to play with me.”
Even during chemo, Falzone found things to laugh about, like how she does not have one of the more popular cancers. “Breast cancer patients get gift bags with pink nail files, mints, and lip balm. When I went to the doctor’s office I asked, ‘Where’s my gift bag?’ I was really disappointed,” she says.
“People care about boobs. They grace the cover of magazines. They peek out of things,” she continues. “But what’s a liver? It’s liver and onions. Most people don’t even eat it. On ‘Chopped,’ it’s the booby prize ingredient. We need a sexy slogan or a cute mascot, like Larry the Liver.”
Falzone knows not everything about cancer is funny. “But you can be morose or be a teacher in the way you choose to live your life moment to moment. I’m teaching my daughter how to be with death,” she says. “It’s one of the greatest lessons of life.”
Having a positive outlook is key, she says. “Cancer doesn’t have to be doom and gloom. It is that, but you don’t have to be that way about it,” Falzone says. “Cancer sucks big time, but there are gifts [like] the love, generosity, and dedication of humanity.” Through illness, she says, “You give people the opportunity to be excellent.”
No, she’s just happy to wake up every morning. Knowing she has an expiration date makes some things easy. “I get to choose to do stuff because I want to do it, not because I have to do it or need to do it,” she says. “I get to do what makes me happy, and that’s spending time with people I love.”
Dieting, for example, has gone out the window, but travel hasn’t. “I don’t have to save for retirement. I get to spend my money,” she says. She’s been to Southeast Asia, Hawaii, and to see a beloved cousin in Florida. Forget coach, she now upgrades to first class. Falzone even got a chance to “live” her funeral. Instead of a wake, she had what she jokingly calls a “wide awake.” She posted about her terminal diagnosis on Facebook and received an outpouring of love and support from more than 1,000 people. “People wrote the most beautiful words you could imagine and sent private messages. I was moved to tears about how much I was loved and the impact I had on people’s lives,” she says.
Preparing for death is next. “There isn’t one person in my life who doesn’t know I love them, not one who I haven’t apologized to or forgiven.” She plans to settle in a house in the California desert (“I’m renting; my doctor said, ‘Why buy?’”) and surround herself with her loved ones until the end comes. (California, she notes, is a right-to-die state.)
“Make a commitment to find the humor; it alleviates some of the suffering and fear,” she says. “Bring joy. You get a choice to live in victimhood or live in a state of grace where instead of seeing all the terrible things about it, you can see the beauty.” And who knows, she says. A miracle could happen, and she could live longer than expected. But then, she jokes, she won’t have any money left. She’ll have spent it all on first class tickets.