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“Knock, Knock.” “Who’s There?” “Cancer.”

Posted on September 20, 2012, 3:48 PM
“Knock, Knock.” “Who’s There?” “Cancer.”
Photo credit: Ann Johannson.

by Tig Notaro

If anyone is wondering how I’m doing, I’m just sitting around having breast cancer all day and night. It’s in my body and I want it to get the hell out now. My oncologist and my surgeons have had differing opinions on how to handle the procedures. This has lead me to getting second and third opinions, which means scheduling three, then six, then nine appointments.

It’s insane how long it takes just to get a couple of useless teats removed. Sleeping has been nearly impossible. My MRI results came back revealing more tumors, not to mention the tumor on my left side appears to have spread to my lymph nodes, so until my surgery, they won’t be able to tell me if it has spread to other parts of my body or not. Aaaaahhhhh…. Night-night, sleep tight. As I have real waves of fear of dying, I look around my house and see some mostly unused furniture, chairs I never even sat on. I wonder why I bought these stupid things in the first place. I have fantasies of taking things back.

Me: “Yes, hi. I’d like to return this.”
Employee: “The reason?”
Me: “I have cancer.”
Employee: “Do you have a receipt?”
Me: “No, but I do have cancer.”

All of my moments are not that dark. But quite a few can be. Everyone says to stay positive.
And I am an optimist. But still, I felt railroaded, when, for example, a well-meaning person called and talked to me for ten minutes straight like some locker room interview on ESPN: “you’re gonna be fine, you’re strong, just gotta keep your head up.” The conversation was such a clear need on this person’s part to avoid any real depth, almost like a call that just needed to be made. I was bulldozed with positivity. That might work for some people, but I need a real connection. I need room for: “How are you? What exactly did your doctors say?” And for me to have the option to say, “Sometimes, I’m kind of scared.”

I guess I feel it’s reasonable and human-like for me to flip back and forth between confident I’ll beat this and “holy god, I have invasive cancer and I better figure out where I want my lonesome tombstone to still be standing for an eternity with no one visiting it.” I’ve always found it interesting that people need so desperately to make their mark here on earth, the final one being their tombstone. Whenever I drive past a graveyard, I always think of how many tombs are not being visited and haven’t been for decades. Except by the lawnmower guy as he rolls by.

Seems like the typical tombstone is really only visited for 50 years, 100 years, max? Maybe? A tombstone gets a lot of visits right away, for sure. I was on tour a few years ago and took a walk around town that led me to a really cool, old creepy graveyard. I came across a plot that had about 15 balloons, party hats, kazoos, streamers, a triple layered cake with burned out candles and signs exclaiming, “Happy Birthday!” etc. all decorating the tombstone. It stopped me in my tracks. I slowly looked around in all directions just to make sure I wasn’t being filmed by a TV prank show. And then remembered I was in someplace like Indiana, so I just stood there and stared at the stillness of the party that wasn’t going on. At all.

No matter how much you dress up a tombstone, there’s still nothing happening. I wondered if anybody had any sense of humor about it as they ordered the cake and blew up the balloons, planned it or executed this idea. Or if it was just a group of sincere people with zero sense of humor sticking to their word that they’d be back to celebrate the deceased’s birthday. And I can’t help but wonder who blew the candles out on the cake.

Soon after seeing that site, I was in quite a fit of laughter. It was amazing. The longer I stared at it, the funnier and more ironic it became. And yes, this is a huge hint to my friends and family as for what I’d like for my birthday after I die. Don’t sullenly hang out around my tomb, just dress the thing up in celebration and then take the party elsewhere, please. Thanks in advance.

Actually, change of plans. I don’t want to be buried, I want to be cremated because I don’t want to take up any more space after I die. And for the record, I sure hope I don’t die anytime soon. I just happen to be right in the middle of not knowing what’s going on.

Everyone keeps remarking on how well I’m handling things. “Things” being my debilitating digestive tract condition that left me hospitalized for a week back in March, the tragic death of my mother after an accidental fall a few days after I was discharged from the hospital, my breakup in May, and now, my cancer diagnosis in July. I’m not sure how to handle all of this, other than to grab my stomach whenever I get a sudden horrible sharp pain after eating certain foods, to stop in my tracks every time I hear my mother’s voice in my head, to finally go out with someone I’ve always had a thing for and to just sit around and have cancer on my couch. I don’t even know if I’m doing well, it’s just literally how I’m handling things. Some days I can’t get out of bed due to an overwhelming feeling of defeat. Then other days I feel so inspired that I can’t stop writing. All I know is that I take one step, stop, take a huge breath and repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

I’m always keenly aware that no matter how horrible things get in life, it never takes anything away from all of the remarkably great things that have happened along the way. I’ve traveled the world, I’ve been in love, I’ve seen my dreams realized beyond expectation, I’ve laughed so hard it made me physically ill. I’ve really lived a dynamic life. I’ve become accustomed to responding to all of my life’s full-circle experiences with “ah, of course,” because every time I think I’ve missed the boat, a giant ship has shown up. Sometimes even a speedboat. Like, say, the speedboat I rented on my “make-a-wish” weekend with my date, zooming across Lake Ontario with the radio blaring the best possible 80s tunes.

Anyway, if I do die, and I really hope I’ve made it clear that I don’t want to, please do me the biggest favor and make sure every article written about me says the clichéd, “she had a sense of humor right up to the end.” I always picture myself lying on my deathbed with all of my loved ones gathered around hanging on my every word as I slowly mutter: “Knock…............ knock…...........”

That being said, if I do lose my sense of humor when I die, please make note of that as well. “She lost her sense of humor right at the end. She said, “Knock…............ Never mind…............”

Tig Notaro is a stand-up comedian who has performed on Conan and This American Life. You can find her website at, like her Facebook page at, listen to her podcast Professor Blastoff at, and follow her podcast on Twitter (@blastoffpodcast). Since writing this piece, Tig has successfully undergone surgery.

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Posted by Cheryl Martin | September 20, 2012 4:20 PM

sometimes all we can to about cancer is laugh.  I can say “been there done that” 4 times in the last 12 years.  I tell people I am a slow learner and just haven’t learned my lesson with cancer.  Best wishes to you.  Strive to Thrive!!!

Posted by Brandy | September 20, 2012 4:43 PM

I always say my sister was funny right up to the end…HILARIOUS!!  My sister was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer when she was 30.  After her diagnosis she started training for a half marathon because running was her way to prove SHE was still in control of her body!  She was able to run 13 miles her first year of training but the cancer ate through her spine so she had to have surgery before she could run again.  After that she completed 2 half marathons while on treatment.  Then she started having more health problems and so I ran the half marathon for her.  She always wanted to run a full but her health wouldn’t let her and joked that someday I would want to…haha NO WAY!!  Two days before she passed away she looked at me with a huge smile and said “Someday you’ll run a FULL marathon FOR ME!!!”  Oh no she didn’t…HILARIOUS right up to the end!  I hope she was laughing her pretty lil ass off as I suffered through 26.2 miles this year!  I’d do anything for that girl!! smile I hope your breast cancer/chemo play nice with you!

Posted by vera Batey | September 20, 2012 4:54 PM

This is exactly how I feel..your can do this..SHUT UP. !! Your not going thrum this. !! I don’t know how I feel..I am not always strong..I cry behind closed doors so no one will see me not being strong…I have stage 2 breasted cancer..16 treatments..just started 9.17.12..funny I can remember my diagnosed date but not my children’s but my Dad said..” Vera…it is what it is “

Posted by Laurie Campione | September 20, 2012 7:21 PM

Thank you for your honesty….I felt it to my bones. I’ve been there too. I am a 2 year breast cancer survivor. My mother battle colon cancer the same time I was going through it. We shared our stories about ports, chemo and raced to see who’s hair would grow back first. I won.. she wouldn’t leave until she knew I was ok. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. I think most people just REALLY don’t know what to say. I fought mine with humor in every thing I did. I sure have a few you can use if you want to!
Fight like a girl my friend! I’ll be keeping tabs on you!

Posted by samantha | September 23, 2012 1:51 PM

wow! this piece really moved me. my brother had something similer happen, (lymphoma) the thing that concerns me is your c diff. my brother had it , and he was free of it for 2 years but the chemo bought it back with a vengeance. it was really tough. make sure you are on your doctors asses about your treatment. remember its your life .be aggressive with them. good luck to you. Shame that no on is commenting here.

Posted by Susan | October 05, 2012 3:17 PM

Thanks so much for your words….the truth is chilling. I feel as you so often. You are not alone…. Triple Negative Breast Cancer Stage 3, Grade 3, lymph nodes positive, Susan

Posted by izzie s | October 07, 2012 11:10 AM

how come you know exactly how i feel when those close to me who should know really don’t have a clue. have been diagnosed with high grade breast cancer, just had op no idea of results ie clear margins if invasive have to wait 10 days to get results. so why should i keep my chin up i have no idea what to expect and no idea what i will do when get the results except have whatever treatment is necessary. when i try to make a joke “its not something to laugh about” so you tell me how do i keep my chin up. let me deal with this in my way take your lead from me this is my cancer and i will treat it any way i like to stop it getting the better of me. good luck to one and all in the same boat. xxx

Posted by Roz | December 17, 2012 7:33 AM

Its amazing how no one’s cancer is the same
But our experience is. I was diagnosed with
Stage 4 Ovarian cancer last October. It was
The finallity of not ever having a child that made
Me sit and think who would stop on the day and
Think of my birthday or take a moment to drop
A flower or prayer for me on my grave. The thought
Of strangers clearing my house and throwing away
My cherished belongings without feeling that make
Me feel the sadest since being diagnosed.

Posted by MomLen | December 17, 2012 8:16 AM

Tig, My warm wishes and hugs on your way.  You nailed it.  Everybody says stay positive and think positive. How can you when we know that we may not live to see the things we want for our children.  I was diagnosed with Inflammatory breast cancer, stage 3, triple negative on 1/25/12.  I was lucky to have picked my Doctors who acted so fast and started the ball rolling that I didn’t even have the time to dwell on my diagnosis. When I sat down for my 1st chemo that’s when I lost it. Then everyone started to say stay positive, think positive.  I wanted to scream at them; but I just sat there and cried and nodded my head.  While at home I searched from every CA org to match me with an IBC stage 3 trip,e negative survivor. I’ve been waiting and waiting until it dawned to me that everyone must have joined OUR Maker or I psyched myself and said they dropped off from the list.  It just made me so depressed and I was at the lowest point when my phone rang and the caller, I call her MY Angel, introduced herself as a 10 year survivor for the same diagnosis.  She didn’t pull any punches. She told me I am allowed to be negative but not for a long time coz shell come down, she lives in another state, and kick my a..!  Imagine this feisty70 yr old Lady kicking the a.. Of a 57 year old lady.  She told me to do things which was the opposite of what most people are telling me.  When she gets my full attention, after laughing so loud with her, then she gives me a pep talk which I greatly appreciated and gave me her personal number so I can call her anytime I need to talk with a warning to not get offended if she tells me I don’t have the time now, which she did only a couple of times. She’s been there for me up to this day and we still talk just to touch bases and I will be forever grateful for knowing her and for her pep talks especially the laughter.  After reading your article, I said to myself that this is a special person who has all the positive vibes within herself and doesn’t need other people to tell her so and that she will fight the fight like a true lady warrior!
Good luck and more warm hugs to you.

Posted by tammy | December 17, 2012 8:35 PM

It’s Heaven that I found this on Facebook.  How many words do I get??  I lost my 71 year old mother on January 17th, 2012, at I think about 8:00 a.m..  I was sleeping right beside her, her in her hospital bed, and me on an air mattress on the floor..Siblings were in the next room,on couches. She had bought me a magical christmas tree ornament that ran on batteries so to keep the swirling glitter and the changing lights hipnotizing.  Thank God for the most peaceful death I could hope for.  The most quite night I ever remember, sleeping the best I had slept in a couple of years, since her diagnosis..stage four ovarian cancer.  There was no sense of humor at the end with my mother.  My biggest heartache was how quite she became during her fight.  No big talks about what to do after she was gone.  If we didn’t bring it up, we hadn’t given up.  But when she was “before cancer”,  she would say how dumb it was to hang all that “stuff” by the gravesites.  She would say,“they’re not there!” Somehow now, after all the family has been through since she slept her way into heaven, I find it comforting,knowing where she truly my heart

Posted by jasmine | February 07, 2013 11:09 AM

The thing i love most is that celebrities (mariah carey and many more)come together and hold fun raisers!

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