Comedian Tig Notaro did a stand-up routine recently on cable TV, and I couldn't help but notice something unusual about her performance.
I mean, beside the fact that she was topless.
She was helping me, and an entire audience, feel a little less uncomfortable about breast cancer. As a result, Notaro was encouraging an important, healthy change in society overall: people talking more frankly about their medical conditions in order to wipe away some of the stigma of getting ill.
A generation or two ago, when someone close was hit with a cancer diagnosis, relatives would whisper the name of the dread disease or call it the Big C. Speaking frankly about it made it seem possibly contagious.
Contrast that fear with Notaro, who did half her recent routine topless, after undergoing a double mastectomy. I caught her act and at first asked myself why she would do this: To shock? To take a brave stand?
I watched her move smoothly into her comedic routine after hanging her shirt on a stand. She held the mic and gestured confidently. She went on being funny in her quirky, sideways-take-on-life way.
Soon I realized I was overlooking the fact that she was naked from the waist up, that she no longer had breasts. I was simply laughing with her audience and enjoying this comic as she cajoled us to stop the whispering and enjoy the vagaries of life as we trip over them.
Medical science has helped us take baby steps in acknowledging life's realities and breathing a bit easier in dealing with them. Because of this, many famous people now talk about their diagnoses publicly. Betty Ford made it acceptable to acknowledge alcoholism as well as breast cancer. Jimmy Carter told the world this month about his cancer diagnosis, displaying a fearlessness about the treatment he faces and a calm frame of mind.
The message is that sometimes things happen. There's no one and nothing to blame, and they happen even to those public figures whose lives seem charmed: bipolar disorder, depression (both post-partum and clinical) and cancers. It's almost common now to get news reports about the famous doubling as medical updates.
When we learn about their issues, they become real people, not idealized icons. They put the lie to the illusion that illness equals weakness and is embarrassing. If they've faced down the diagnosis, gotten treatment and talked about it, then we can too. Being open about it enables others to offer emotional support. Given our digital world, openness has become contagious: the nonfamous, as well, have taken to using blogs, sharing their journeys with illness and treatment.
These genuine conversations go well beyond knee-jerk gossip and viral salivating. They have shown us how to respond to illness. In acknowledging and working through it, we can even find humor in the process. Notaro chose a brave format to accomplish this and helped speed the process of our culture's growing up.
Deborah Lev is an associate professor of communication at Centenary College in Hackettstown, N.J.