The Comedy in Cancer
Olivia Clarke, founder of Humor Beats Cancer, shares stories from around the world that feature cancer warriors finding the funny in a traditionally sober space.

“Really, it was kind of a way to not be in that dark place all the time,” explains Olivia Clarke, a former journalist who currently works in public relations. When Clarke was diagnosed with cancer at just 36 years old, she needed a way to fight through the doom and gloom. During treatment, Clarke would tap into moments of “dark humor” that brought her joy (like poking fun at painful treatments, or the way chemotherapy can ravage a body—things that only other cancer warriors could possibly understand). So she figured out a way to help others beat cancer with humor.

Humor Beats Cancer is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that launched online in 2017. They operate out of Chicago but interact with cancer warriors, thrivers, and supporters globally through their website, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Clarke collects stories from cancer warriors about moments of humor during a difficult time—like accidentally texting your treatment plan to your dog’s groomer instead of your son, or awkwardly revealing a cancer status to a well-meaning bartender—“[It’s] giving each other permission to laugh at something that is so dark and scary and heinous,” says Clarke.

Clarke points out that being diagnosed with cancer can often make one feel very isolated, particularly for people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. “You walk into any waiting room, [and] you’ll be the youngest person in the room,” Clarke says. “[Most people] don’t realize this is happening with young people, too. [Humor Beats Cancer] is a unique way to bring people together and to show them that they’re not alone, and that they can lean on each other and on people that they’ve never even met.”

Humor Beats Cancer, a nonprofit organization that encourages joy, empathy and humor for young adults facing cancer, held its annual fundraiser at Half Sour in Chicago on October 17, 2019. Founder, Olivia Clarke, from Chicago started the organization in 2017. (Photo: Natalie Battaglia)

Clarke noticed a gap in the community—cancer warriors could find resources to connect through common ground, such as being on the same treatment plan and taking the same medicine, but not through humor. According to Clarke, Humor Beats Cancer is unique in that respect. “It’s so gratifying to see, because you take one small story and then it becomes six or seven other stories,” begins Clarke. “People [say], ‘My goodness, I was experiencing that too, and I thought it was funny, but I didn’t know I could laugh.’”

Recently, Humor Beats Cancer has branched out to make IRL connections. Clarke has hosted writing workshops at places like Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Gilda’s Club Chicago to help cancer warriors tell their story in their own words.

“People in general are kind of afraid to tell their stories sometimes, [but] it doesn’t matter if you’re not a good writer, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never done anything like this before,” Clarke says. “Give it a shot.”

Clarke also sends care packages to cancer warriors, but with a comedic bent, including things like “adult” coloring books and bitter lemon drops, “because cancer is kind of a bitter pill to swallow,” Clarke says with a laugh. Through annual fundraising events (the most recent taking place last October), Clarke hopes to continue sharing stories, sending gift packages, and helping warriors get through the dark days of cancer treatment with a little camaraderie and a lot of comedy. “[In this community], you can feel some sort of joy and connection, and you can feel some sort of relief,” Clarke begins. “It will get better, or maybe it never gets better, but you find new ways to cope with it.”


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