Michael Maryanoff dressed up as a drag queen to direct and act in a short video, “The Real Housewives of Chemotherapy.”
He is not a cross-dresser, but — with his clip-on chandelier earrings and a matching turquoise necklace hanging over his hairy chest — he looked just like one. His blue maxi dress had a feminine curvy pattern in fuchsia that hugged his hairy legs. And he struggled to maintain his balance in glossy tangerine high-heels.
“I kill wrinkles with Botox and I kill cancer with the energy of my mind,” he tells viewers as his on-air persona, Yesenia.
Some cancer patients like Maryanoff are gifted in finding humor during difficult times. Take the two bloggers who started “The Real Housewives of Chemotherapy.”
Comedian H. Alan Scott, who blogs for the Huffington Post about his testicular cancer diagnosis, wrote of the glamorous women with “pulled faces and beautiful wigs” at his oncologist’s office in Beverly Hills.
Suleika Jaouad, who blogs for The New York Times about her experience with leukemia, and her friend Kristen Howard, 31, who has non-Hodgkin lymphoma, brought a few New York City snobs to life in a video they posted on YouTube. One character complained about not being able to get a “mani-pedi” because of her blood count and another complained about the nurse wearing “Crocs” and not fancy “Jimmy Choos.”
The chemotherapy jokes were all too familiar for Christine Anderson. When she was 26, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that starts in plasma cells in the bone marrow. She suggested we work on a Miami edition of the video, so we recruited Maryanoff and Jessica LaBonte, 34, who was diagnosed with breast cancer about a year ago.
“Making the video was therapy for me,” LaBonte said. “It made me feel like I wasn’t alone in this fight.”
Maryanoff led the way. When he is up for it, he likes doing stand-up comedy at local bars in Miami. The hobby started after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma at 23. He said his first thought after waking up from a 10-day coma after a biopsy, was, “I better get a good stand-up bit out of this.”
He has been in treatment for three years.
“Cancer is not this enormous thing that consumes every fiber of my being. It’s just something that happened to me, like an ex-girlfriend or a bad Mexican dinner,” Maryanoff said. “I don’t sequester it into some deep corner where no one can access it. I talk about it in the open. I’ll even dress in drag and talk about it.”
Coping with cancer in a positive manner is challenging. But studies show that negative thoughts manifest into stress, which can weaken the immune system. Meanwhile, laughing enhances intake of oxygen-rich air, increases heart rate and blood pressure, aids muscle relaxation and increases endorphins.
“I think you were really negative about everything at the beginning,” Maryanoff, 26, said to me. “You were being crazy researching medications. That’s because you were scared. I did make fun of you. I think that helped … No matter what happens you can’t let any specific incident just destroy your life. You can’t take yourself too seriously.”
Working on an original script and editing the video took time. LaBonte and I — the more serious ones — had concerns about being insensitive and using expletives. Poking fun at religion, sex and alternative cancer treatments was not easy for us, but we compromised.
Maryanoff and Anderson, who don’t take themselves too seriously, seemed to enjoy the process more.
The video “helped me to laugh at some awkward and sad situations,” Anderson said. “And it felt good to know that others had similar experiences.”
My friendship with Maryanoff has been a positive influence. I laugh more now than I did before the cancer. It turns out that laughing is a serious matter when it comes to maintaining a good quality of life.
Did you know that the study of the psychological and physiological effects of laughter is called Gelotology? Did you know that many doctors and nurses belong to the American Association for Therapeutic Humor and the International Society for Humor Studies?
It took guts to be frank about cancer, but we all agreed that it was cathartic and freeing.
“Comedy serves to cut the tension … The less you talk about something the more you feed the monster,” Maryanoff said. “It becomes this big, horrible, dark thing that weighs you down. Making a joke is a way of saying ‘I’m not afraid.’”