Saturday, October 19, 1997
Breast cancer not a punch line

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Probably I have lost my sense of humor. Or maybe I'm just an ungrateful wretch. Or an unsophisticated bumpkin. But I don't think Murphy Brown's cancerous breast is hilariously funny.

Geez, I hope Murphy doesn't find out about this. I remember what happened to Dan Quayle when he had the gall to say he wished she had provided her fictional child with two fictional parents. Didn't she fictionally fill his car with shaving cream?

On top of that, I have been making fun of my own breast cancer for seven years. Or at least I have tried to make the point that you can laugh and have breast cancer at the same time. I hope I haven't given anybody the impression that it doesn't terrify me. Or that I don't mind if you make boob jokes. Or that I'm not uncomfortable when somebody wants to know "which one?"

Ask a man who has had prostate surgery if he gets a big laugh out of impotence or incontinence jokes.

The sight of Murphy's friend Frank (Joe Regalbuto) gingerly fondling a breast prosthesis - "It's OK, you can squeeze it." - was greeted with screams of laughter on last week's episode. Later, looking at photographs of breast reconstructions, or "ta tas," as Frank likes to call them, he observes that "These would go great with your blue dress."

Laughs. Huge, prolonged laughs. On the laugh track. Not at my house.

Breast cancer bandwagon

Candice Bergen told reporters that Murphy had been suffering from a creativity slump. So she and the show's original creator, Diane English, decided to reenergize the series with breast cancer. So - and I feel terrible if I'm wrong - I don't actually think that our cancer was their biggest concern.

These six episodes have been called "chancy and bold" by CBS television. If they really wanted to be bold, they might have given Murphy, a reformed smoker, lung cancer. But good lung jokes are probably in short supply.

This feels like a bandwagon to me, a ratings boost, piggybacking on Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Oooh, does that sound ungrateful? I hope not. This awareness, of course, translates into first-time mammographies, self-examinations and money. Research dollars. As actor Christopher Reeve says of his own struggle to raise awareness and funding for spinal cord research, "It's not just that time is money. Money is time."

Buzzword of the '90s

Most of us know we can't have it both ways. You can't sit back, say nothing and hope for a cure. You've got to beat the drum. And we're grateful for the attention. And we are touched by our friends who wear pink ribbons in support. Truly, we are. But some of us are beginning to wonder uncomfortably if we have passed over that great divide and are no longer women with a scary disease.

We're wondering if we have become a market. We knew from the beginning that cancer might kill us, disfigure us. We never suspected that it would make us an attractive commercial opportunity.

Some of us also have the uneasy feeling that we have unwittingly become poster children. Just for the record, I have never talked to anybody who thinks her breast cancer is more important than anybody else's. We know the enemy. It is cancer. Any place. Any kind.

We also know we are a bunch of individuals, sometimes confused and frightened, sometimes defiant and tough. Some find it easy to talk about it. Some can laugh. But not all the time and not at prosthetics or surgery.

We don't know what we should call ourselves. Victims? Fighters? Survivors? One thing we do know is that we are something less trivial than a sitcom plot, even one that might be well-intentioned. So I hope I don't seem grouchy.

I just wish Murphy Brown would turn the laugh track down a notch.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.