Shawn Brimley before surgery for colon cancer next to image of monster
Missing Shawn

Shawn’s Cancer Humor

It’s hard to maintain a sense of humor if you’re dying.  But somehow, Shawn did it.

In many ways, I was married to a very light-hearted man. For work, Shawn dealt with some of the biggest crises in the world but he never really brought that home. Every weekend, he loved to see friends and he was almost always the one telling funny stories and making people laugh. So when we got the cancer diagnosis, one thing that stuck out to me about that weekend afterwards was how he didn’t crack even one joke.

But that was short-lived, thank God. By the next week, when Shawn had been admitted for surgery at NIH, he was joking with the doctors and the nurses alike.

I may not have remembered all of the details of this time last year, but Facebook did. I guess I’m glad that Facebook memories exist, but when they pop up on my news feed….well, they can really throw me.

Take last Wednesday, December 5th.  It was that day a year ago when Shawn announced to the world that he had cancer and was prepping for surgery the next day.  In a multi-paragraph discussion, he told everyone that he had received a stage 4 cancer diagnosis and then he detailed what the plan was going forward.  The post is horrible to read, but in a strange way, it is also beautiful.  I think it’s because he spends a good chunk of the post trying to reassure others.  Here’s an excerpt:

One of the reasons the doctors are comfortable with such an aggressive approach is that I am young, very fit, and the rest of my body and organs are in excellent shape. It’s almost as if the 2-year weight loss and CrossFit journey I’ve been on has all been in preparation for precisely this moment.

I read the post before he put it up.  “It’s perfect,” I said.

“Really?” he asked, looking up at me from the hospital bed.  This moment of doubt – so rare from him – sticks in my mind for some reason.

“Yes, it’s honest and hopeful,” I said, “and that’s how we feel.”

I went home that night, knowing it might be my last night with the kids for a long time.  The next morning when I showed up, Shawn was exhausted from the preparation for surgery, but he still had a glint in his eye as they wheeled him down.

“We gotta do a great post for Facebook,” he said.

“Facebook!” I said.  Was he crazy? “Jesus, Shawn, let’s focus on the major surgery right now.”

He handed me his phone.  “Hold on,” he said, and positioned something under his blanket.  It looked like he had a major protrusion coming from his gut.  “Okay,” he said, making a funny face, “take the photo.”

I did, and then he showed me his creation a few minutes later – a side-by-side depiction of him in the hospital bed with an alien seemingly emerging from his gut.  “Pre-op, and not a moment too soon!” the caption read.

I cracked up.  Later, I showed his nurses and they all fell over laughing.  “Tell everyone I’m fine,” Shawn said as they wheeled him off.

The surgery was brutal, and ended up being much more invasive than planned.  My friends Jason and Stefanie sat with me.  Eventually, they called me back to see Shawn.

He could barely move and the nurses had me wiping the inside of his mouth with a gauze pad every minute or so.  He smiled weakly at me, and after a few minutes he said my name.

“Marjorie….” His voice trailed off.  I leaned down to the bed and put my face next to his.  “You did great, baby,” I said.  Every emotion I’ve ever had filled my body.

He looked at me.  “Take a photo,” he said.  Upon seeing the confused look on my face, he said, “people need to know I’m okay.  Send it to everyone after you take it, okay?”

He couldn’t really move, but as I stood back to take a photo, he raised one hand and did a little “hang loose” sign from the bed.

I laughed at him as he did it.  Then I sent the photo and shook my head at him.  I chuckled a bit at the ridiculousness of it all.

He looked at me and smiled that mischievous smile just before the anesthesia took him away to a dreamless sleep.


  • Melissa

    It looks like Shawn and my husband, Rick, shared the same self-deprecating sense of humor. When Rick was in the hospital for the last time, his head was swathed in one continuous bandage because of the 22 radiation treatments he’d gone through. His nurses joked that he looked like a Swami and his usual daytime nurse threatened to bring in her “Bedazzler” gadget so she could put some jewels on it. One morning when I got there, I found that she’d done the next best thing. There, in the middle of his swathed head, was a big, glittery gold bow that you’d find on the top of a gift. Rick didn’t mind it at all and wore it for the rest of the day until he was discharged to go home. All of the nurses (and supporting staff) were so sweet to him because he showed an interest in their lives and work and didn’t complain about his situation.

    • Marjorie

      And it’s funny that we remember these things about our husbands – but I think it’s because those small things really capture who they were. I love the image of your husband wearing a gold bow!

  • Melanie

    My husband was the same way. His sense of humor was one of the things that attracted me to him in the beginning, and our daughter and now grandson seem to have inherited t. He lives on!!! I know that our husbands’ ability to joke and laugh was part of that strength they had…the strength discussed in one of your other entries, Marjorie. In closing, that hideous alien is exactly what I see when I hear the word “cancer.”

    • Marjorie

      Yes, I always smile when one of my kids does something just exactly like their father did. He lives on through them.