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Healthy Monday: Humorist says when it comes to cancer, laughter beats tears

Harvest of Hope, other events scheduled this week

POSTED: October 16, 2008 5:00 a.m.
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Christine Beckwith

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Cancer is no laughing matter. Or is it?

Christine Clifford Beckwith has based her career on finding humor in the cancer experience. In 1994, when she was 40, Beckwith was diagnosed with metastatic stage 3 breast cancer.

At the time, she was a "very stressed-out corporate executive" working for a major international marketing firm.

"I think I had a good sense of humor, but I wasn’t the one telling the jokes," she said.

That all changed when she got cancer. Beckwith found that many people were avoiding her because they couldn’t deal with the grim news.

"They didn’t want to say the wrong thing, so often they said nothing at all," she said. "I found that humor helped to put them at ease."

About six weeks after undergoing a lumpectomy and beginning chemotherapy and radiation, Beckwith drew a series of about 50 cartoons about her cancer treatment. Whenever someone sent food or a get-well card, Beckwith would send one of these drawings as a thank-you note.

The cartoons seemed to break the ice, and soon people were picking up the phone and calling her. Eventually, some of those cartoons were collected in her first book, "Not Now ... I’m Having a No Hair Day."

Beckwith, who lives in Minneapolis with her husband and six children, has written five books about living with cancer. She also created a Web site for cancer patients and friends, www.cancerclub.com.

And she’ll be the keynote speaker for the Longstreet Clinic’s annual Harvest of Hope event, scheduled for 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Northeast Georgia History Center on the Brenau University campus.

Beckwith said after her first book was published, she discovered her story wasn’t all that unusual. "People began sending me their own funny stories about cancer," she said. "It just feels a lot better to laugh about your situation than to cry about it."

Her message fits in with the theme of Harvest of Hope, which was created by Longstreet oncologist Dr. Anup Lahiry to help cancer patients, survivors and families maintain a positive attitude.

In addition to Beckwith’s presentation and book signing, the event will feature workshops on improving one’s appearance during cancer treatment and on living with cancer as a chronic illness. There will be exhibits sponsored by health care providers, nonprofit organizations and pharmaceutical companies.

Also, the popular Atlanta-based choir Shades of Pink, whose members are all breast cancer survivors, will perform during lunch.

There is no charge to attend Harvest of Hope, but registration is required.

It’s just one of several cancer-related events happening in Hall County this week. On Wednesday, there’s a breast cancer awareness luncheon at the Gainesville Civic Center, with former state Sen. Carol Jackson as the featured speaker.

Friday night at the Chattahoochee Country Club, there’s a $75-per-person fund-raiser for Longstreet’s Harvest of Hope program. But this year, the scope of the event has been expanded. Proceeds will be split between Harvest of Hope and For Her Glory, an organization that donates wigs, prostheses and other accessories to cancer patients.

Jackie Cooley, co-founder of For Her Glory, said the group has helped more than 250 patients and spent about $50,000 since it was established in 2004.

"There’s a tremendous need for this type of thing," she said.

Entertainment at the fund-raiser will be provided by the Jesters, an 11-member band that performs Motown tunes and "beach party" music. Scott Piotrowski, who plays trumpet in the band, is also a co-founder of For Her Glory. He helped create the group in honor of his late wife Judy’s nine-year battle with cancer.

Longstreet spokeswoman Jullie King said the Jesters will perform three sets, totaling nearly three hours of music, with lots of opportunities to dance the night away.

"We’re really excited," she said. "Our sponsor tables are nearly sold out, but we still have individual tickets available."

Cooley said she expects a big turnout because almost everyone has been touched in some way by cancer.

"It’s for a good cause, with great music and great food, and you get a tax deduction," she said.

New to Gainesville this year is yet another cancer-related event, a traveling exhibition featuring award-winning art from all over the world, inspired by the cancer experience. "Lilly Oncology on Campus" will be showing Wednesday through Oct. 30 at the Longstreet Cancer Center, 705 Jesse Jewell Parkway. A reception for the exhibition is scheduled for 6 to 7 p.m. Thursday.

The artwork on display will reinforce the message that cancer, while still a dreaded disease, often can inspire people to new levels of self-expression and discovery.

"Cancer has blessed me in many ways," said Beckwith, who was neither a humorist nor an artist before her diagnosis. "It allowed me to do some creative things that I never knew I had inside of me."



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