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The Unfunniest Thing in the World

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I’m going to say it up front: I’ve been wrestling with my Oy! articles lately. My intentions were good. I wanted to highlight two very important health awareness months, both of which have particular resonance in the Jewish community. This month is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, as we know from the flurry of pink everywhere from snack wrappers to football uniforms. September was National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and I was going to review Gilda Radner’s autiobiography,  It’s Always Something .

I would hope that everyone knows who Gilda Radner is, but in case you don’t, Gilda was a Not Ready for Prime Time Player, a member of the original cast of Saturday Night Live, along with Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtain, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and the rest of the greats. She’s responsible for some of the most classic sketches and characters that have ever aired on TV, including Emily Litella, Roseanne Roseannadanna, Baba Wawa and many others. Some of her SNL highlights are available for free on Hulu. Definitely watch a few of those, because it gives context for the rest of this.

Gilda Radner died of ovarian cancer in May 1989. She was 42. Her health had started deteriorating in cyclical, baffling ways in 1985, and she wasn’t diagnosed until October of the following year, when her cancer was already well along. Ovarian cancer is notoriously hard to catch early, and notoriously hard to treat. As she relates the parade of symptoms in her book, I felt myself wanting to scream at her doctors. It’s ovarian cancer! Why can’t you catch it? Why can’t you save her? The symptoms are clear with hindsight, and because it’s my job to talk about these things, I recognize them before she even says the words “ovarian cancer.” But as she tries to figure out why she is in chronic pain, why she is sick all the time, she hears a litany of brush-offs and excuses: it’s female hysteria. It’s the Epstein-Barr virus. It’s a diet issue. The search for answers is stressful just to read about.

Here’s my confession. I couldn’t continue reading. The book is sitting in front of me right now, a flyer stuck about a third of the way in. By this point, Gilda has begun treatment. She describes the indignities of her body betraying her, her personal terrors and rages and despairs, the work of the nurses and physicians and counselors, and the support of her husband, Gene Wilder. And of course, she’s as funny as she is honest. This is Gilda Radner we’re talking about.

Reading this book was hitting me hard, though. Out of the blue, in March 2008, we found out that my mother had brain cancer, and while our family has been lucky, knock on wood, I know there are a lot of things I haven’t confronted or dealt with yet. But even though cancer affects everyone, really, it’s the person who has the cancer who goes through the most. The truth is that I’m ashamed of my inability to keep reading Gilda’s book. I don’t feel like I have the right to put it down.

Today Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a week old. We’re going to continue to see pink, or wear pink, or buy pink. Last month, the Chicago skyline was teal at night, the “ovarian cancer color.” Certainly awareness is a huge step forward. Being able to talk about cancer publically is a new, groundbreaking thing for our society. Ask your parents how often people talked about cancer, or called it by name, even when someone died from it. Given how freely we discuss it today, their answers may shock you.

Color coordinating, however, is only the first step. When we talk about cancer awareness, we need to really talk about it. Ashkenazi Jews are at an increased risk for mutations in their BRCA genes, a topic I’ve touched on before. These mutations can put women at high risk for developing, at a young age, breast or ovarian cancer or both. Learn about the signs. Learn about the symptoms. Learn about breast self-exams and pap smears and mammogram recommendations and family health histories and peer advocacy. Seek out ways to support survivors, previvors and those who are currently fighting. These links are a good place to start for information; for the people in your life who have been affected by cancer, start by asking them what they need and go from there.

Gilda Radner was Jewish. She had painful periods her whole life, as well as cysts in her breasts from a young age. Her family had a history of hereditary cancers. When I read that, I was overwhelmed. Why didn’t anyone tell you? I thought, but of course, it was a different time, and they didn’t know what we know today.

Gilda called cancer “the most unfunny thing in the world.” She’s right on the nose about that. We have the opportunity to talk about it. This month, and every month, I hope we do.

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