The healing power of laughter is no joke. Just ask Sister Sue Tracy, known by some as the ‘Funny Nun’ and by many others as the former oncology chaplain at the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion and Butterworth Hospital. A Dominican Sister for 55 years, Sr. Sue is well-known in the community as an inspirational speaker, a source of comfort, guidance and hope, and a local laugh expert.
You may wonder, as I did, how does one become a laugh expert?
According to Sister, “It’s based on a lot of years of experience!”
HA! No kidding!
Experience that includes dealing with cancer for 29 years. Sr. Sue is a cancer survivor five-times over and if you ask her how old she is, she’ll gladly tell you, “74! I’ll be 75 in June. I started this journey with cancer when I was 46 years old. So to be able to turn 75 is amazing!” I watched her face light up at the thought of it.
At the time of this writing, she is challenged by the disease once again. For her, being diagnosed with cancer is not reason to repeatedly ask ‘Why me?’ It’s reason to ask ‘How will I react to having it?’ that’s important to her healing.
“When I think of humor, I think it’s going to help me jump start my immune system,” she explains.
“The humor I possess and make use of isn’t just because of cancer. I’ve always been funny. So I’m not going to allow cancer to take away my humor – It’s a natural tranquilizer, it’s free, it’s non-fattening and it’s contagious! It’s a God-given gift,” she laughs.
That’s typical Sr. Sue – a witty, wise and wonderful presence.
There’s no denying that cancer is serious and life-threatening as are many other diseases and circumstances in life. But Sr. Sue believes, “…having a light-hearted, affirming view is possible for any of us – no matter what the ‘mellofahess’ or the ‘muckity-muck’ is that wants to drown us!”
Sister Sue’s first experience with cancer was with her mother, who taught her to take life as it comes and make the best of it.
“My mother was a mentor to me in terms of seeing life as a gift and as a challenge. When it becomes a challenge, you rally whatever sources you can to meet the moment as it unfolds.
“She said, ‘Sue here I am, this is what it is and we’ll take care of it!’ She lived for 15 wonderful years after her diagnosis.” Her mother and father died the same year, both from cancer.
For Sr. Sue, having battled breast cancer in 1986 and 1993, then non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999 and many basal cell skin cancers in between, her most recent diagnosis, she admits, has been the most stunning and startling to accept.
“In June 2014, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was discovered in my cheek. Then in November, it had the audacity to go north to the brain! It’s only been in the last month that I’ve gained confidence that I’m gonna pull through. But there are certainly nervous moments about it.
“I may die of cancer some day, but not yet. I have this interview to do first,” she adds with a smirk.
When she finds herself facing the darker moments, Sr. Sue says there is no denying that it is happening. “I don’t run away from what is real. I don’t want to move into a pity party and I don’t want to be stuck in fear because that’s not going to help.”
As a result, Sr. Sue admits she has not had a ‘big cry’ over the situation.
“God has the big picture. It is meant to be – it is not a mistake. I wouldn’t choose it for myself or anyone else but here it is! I can’t back out of it or laugh out of it. But I can laugh with it!
“This is part of my spiritual journey as much as it is my cancer journey,” adds Sr. Sue frankly.
Her journey has led her to discover that it’s in being vulnerable and fragile that people become more connected to each other. “There’s a soothing sense of belonging when you’re in the midst of this. I feel I belong to other people on the cancer journey and I’ve treasured my opportunity to be enriched by other people’s stories too.”
Retired from being a chaplain for a little over a month, Sr. Sue has more time to take care of herself while still helping others.
“My God-given mission to journey with fellow cancer survivors will only stop the day that I breathe my last,” she says. “It’s what it is.”
In the meantime, there is no doubt that Sr. Sue is still looking for the opportunity to have a laugh or two – whether it’s dishing out a one-liner or receiving it. She loves to share a chuckle and great quotes! Here are two of her favorites that are worth remembering:
If you want to succeed in life you must pick three bones to carry with you. A wishbone, a backbone, and a funnybone. – Reba McEntire
Laughter is carbonated holiness. – Anne Lamott
As a fellow cancer traveler, I say ‘Amen’ to that!