Crooked Wigs and Guinea Pigs

Crooked Wigs and Guinea Pigs

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

Crooked Wigs and Guinea Pigs

The steamy August afternoon in the summer of 1996 was just about more than I could take. Sitting in my car at a red light, I was nauseated from my recent chemotherapy treatment, in pain from other cancer medications and severely depressed from the whole cancer experience. I was also at the end of my patience with my husband, who had, just that morning, encouraged me yet again to smile and to try to have a more positive attitude and a sense of humor.

Roger knew what he was talking about. You see, he was fighting his own battle with cancer. Unbelievably, at the relatively young age of forty-five, we had both been diagnosed with cancer within six weeks of one another—I with breast cancer with positive lymph nodes, and he with what one doctor described as a “particularly nasty” form of kidney cancer. Roger somehow managed to be upbeat and hopeful through it all. That I could not seem to find my way to the same state of mind only added to my frustration and depression.

And the sticky mid-Atlantic heat and humidity just made everything worse. All I wanted was to finish my errands, go home and crawl into bed.

Noticing that my wig felt lopsided, I took advantage of the red light to look into the rearview mirror. I tugged on the sides and front of the wig to straighten it and saw, to my horror and embarrassment, four teenagers in the car behind me mocking my movements! They were modeling in exaggerated fashion the primping of a vain woman posing before a mirror, and they were laughing themselves silly.

Tears of anguish welled up in my eyes. How could they be so cruel? I wondered. How could they make fun of a sick woman, a woman who might even be dying?

Because they don’t know, I quickly answered myself. And besides, they’re just kids. They don’t know any better.

Then I thought, But they should.

I don’t know where it came from—maybe I was delirious from the heat—but a giggle bubbled up inside me and, without another thought, I placed my right hand on top of my head and yanked off my wig. Still looking in the mirror, I gave a huge shrug of my shoulders and laughed out loud just as the light turned green.

I will never forget the look of total shock on those four teenagers’ faces as I pulled away from the intersection. All four had their hands to their cheeks, and their mouths and eyes were as big and round as dinner plates. I can still hear the horns of other cars blaring at them to move as they sat there, stunned and motionless.

I laughed for three days. And, for the most part, I haven’t stopped laughing since, because what I discovered that day was that the physical act of laughing made me feel physically better.

Now a lot of people—including Roger—had been telling me for a long time that “laughing will make you feel better,” but I thought they meant on some higher, esoteric level, and my head and heart just weren’t in the mood for that.

What I hadn’t understood was that laughing would make me feel physically better. And that, in fact, laughing would make me physically healthier.

Once I made myself laugh by removing my wig to shock those young people, I realized I could make myself laugh pretty much anytime I wanted to.

And that’s when I started getting well.

Since then, I’ve learned that laughter improves your cardiovascular system in much the same way as aerobic exercise. It oxygenates your entire body, and there is some evidence that it lowers your blood pressure and releases endorphins (the “feel good” chemicals) in your brain. Physical discomforts are minimized almost immediately and—even better—your immune system is strengthened. Not only is your body better able to withstand the rigors of any medical treatment you might be undergoing, but it is also better able to fight disease on its own in the ways God and nature intended. Every single time you laugh, you become physically healthier, and you ensure that you will be even healthier tomorrow!

Do whatever you have to do to make yourself laugh. One tried-and-true method is to watch funny movies (go to, click on “Quick Links” and then “100 Years . . . 100 Laughs” for the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 funniest movies ever made; then start working your way through the list) and television shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos. I have laughed myself stupid over some of those videos, especially the ones of babies trying new foods or ones showing the antics of dogs and cats.

Give a kitten a piece of ribbon. Read a book by Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry or another humorous author. Blow bubbles and watch a toddler try to catch them. Ask a six-year-old what the president’s job is. Listen to comedy tapes and CDs—your local music store has a whole section devoted to humor. There are countless ways to make yourself laugh.

Shortly after my diagnosis, my doctor offered me the opportunity to participate in a clinical trial, and I eagerly accepted. He didn’t use the term “guinea pig,” but that’s how I saw myself. It didn’t matter, though. I wanted every available weapon to fight my battle!

The actual treatments using the trial drug began many months later. The drug was brutal, but by then I had learned the healing power of laughter. While browsing in one of those everything-costs-a-dollar stores, looking for something to amuse myself, I found a small face mask that was just a rubber nose with whiskers. It looked like a mouse’s nose. Or maybe a rat’s. Or maybe, I thought, a guinea pig’s.

At my next appointment, I sat on the table in the examining room sporting my shiny bald head, that oh-so-lovely hospital gown, my new nose and whiskers, and a terribly serious expression. When my doctor walked in, he asked (head down and looking at my chart), “And how are we today?”

I said in the saddest voice I could muster, “I don’t know about this clinical trial. I’m starting to feel like a guinea pig.”

He looked up at me with a puzzled expression. A smile spread slowly across his face. Then he chuckled. Then he started laughing. He laughed so hard he had to sit down. I laughed so much my sides hurt and tears rolled down my face. That rubber nose was the best dollar I ever spent.

Whether you spend a dime or a dollar or nothing at all, find a way to laugh every day. It truly is an investment in your health.

Kathy Cawthon

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