Laughing at Cancer: Humour, empowerment, solidarity and coping online

Demjen, Zsofia (2016). Laughing at Cancer: Humour, empowerment, solidarity and coping online. Journal of Pragmatics, 101 pp. 18–30.




In the context of cancer, humour and joking can still be seen as socially unacceptable. Yet people with cancer can find relief in making light of their often life-threatening situations. How and why they do this has received little systematic attention to date. This paper begins to address this gap by exploring 530,055 words of online patient-patient interactions on a thread explicitly dedicated to humour within a UK-based cancer forum.

A corpus informed analysis reveals that characteristic forms of humour make fun of cancer and its consequences (e.g. embarrassing bodily functions and paraphernalia required as part of treatment), sometimes via co-constructed fantasy scenarios running several posts. Facilitated by the affordances of the online environment, the main functions of these humorous utterances and exchanges include enabling contributors to talk about frightening, sensitive, embarrassing and/or taboo experiences; potentially reducing the psychological impact of their experiences; potentially facilitating a sense of individual and collective empowerment in a context where people can feel powerless; and building a sense of a cohesive, supportive community, reducing potential feelings of isolation. In these ways, humour helps contributors cope with their illness.

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