Q&A with the Rev. Susan Sparks by Molly Pappas from Cancer Forward, The Foundation for Cancer Survivors.
In Reverend Susan Sparks’ book, “Laugh Your Way to Grace,” a single phrase sums the unique perspective of a lawyer, minister, standup comedian cancer survivor: “…alone with what were soon to be my two constant companions: cancer and sarcasm.” After facing a breast cancer diagnosis five years ago, Susan Sparks found herself using humor to deflect the pain and shock she was experiencing. Or so she thought.
Humor has always been a part of her life as both a lawyer and a stand-up comedian. However, after conducting research for her book, Susan realized that there are many studies confirming both physical and emotional benefits of humor and laughter.
Now, as Senior Pastor of the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, Susan uses humor as the grounds for both her church ministry and comedy routine.
MP: Do you find that people have a hard time seeing a minister as a stand up comedian as well?
SS: The bottom line is, when I tell people what I do, I’m a minister and a comedian, they say, “That’s so great! … Why?” And it’s over and over and over again; people do not understand the connection between humor and the sacred. So, I decided to put it down on paper – why I do what I do, and why humor can really enrich people’s lives. I also wrote a 125-page thesis in seminary, with stories and personal insights.
MP: Why do you think humor and laughing are such important subjects for you?
SS: I think it’s because I’ve seen the power in all aspects of life. When I was a trial lawyer, humor helped build rapport with juries. When you laugh together, even as strangers, you laugh and your life overlaps for just a moment. Of course it’s going to be important in preaching. Humor makes people feel more comfortable to hear a message and experience the worship and the gospel in a richer way. As a breast cancer survivor, humor was a healing tool. There are studies that show humor has positive physical side effects, but also emotional. Finding people who had that sense of joy in a difficult place, laughter and humor became an important tool.
MP: What do you think is the most important thing that comes from laughter?
SS: It depends on the situation. But the most important thing it brings is perspective. If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself. Daily life is perspective. What laughter brings the most is hope.
MP: Your breast cancer diagnosis was a big surprise for you. How did you find out?
SS: I was very lucky; I caught it early-stage, through a mammogram. I had been getting reports for a year or two that there was an area of dense tissue, but it was fine. One year, the results came back but needed further tests. I go in to have another mammogram, and they didn’t like what they were looking at. So, I had a biopsy – didn’t think they would find anything. But they did. I just melted, because I completely didn’t see it coming. It was considered early-stage; they took some lymph nodes, but it had not spread. I had radiation but no chemo. Since June (2011), I have been cancer free for five years.
MP: How did humor come into play with your experience with breast cancer?
SS: The day I was going into surgery, I was terrified. Right before I was getting ready to be put under, the anesthesiologist goes, “Don’t worry, this stuff is a great year,” and I started laughing, and went under laughing. When you go under, with increased oxygen or relaxation, your body recovers quicker. But there is a bigger picture to this. The air power, the relaxation – the recovery time I’m convinced was cut. Before I went into surgery, you have to go through all these tests. I was just in a nasty mood, I was scared. I went down to the last scan and was told me it was a liver scan. I told the tech, “I had two beers last night. Take that into consideration.” When he returned, with a serious face he said, “You have the early stages of ‘Bud Light’ syndrome.” What he did was make me laugh in that moment of fear and anger and everything, and just disengage and laugh for a moment. It was a little burden just got lifted for a moment – a moment to breathe and a moment to recharge.
MP: Did you initially have difficulty dealing with everyone asking you how you’re feeling and what’s going on?
SS: There were so many times I wanted to be left alone, wanted to crawl under the covers and hide. When dealing with cancer, especially with a loved one, allow them to be where they have to be. Sometimes that involves laughter, sometimes that involves off-color stuff, stories about their experience. We have to be strong enough to allow them to be in that place. And also allow them to pull away and be sad. Give space and allow it to happen – be with them and don’t feel like you have to fix everything yet.
MP: Have you heard any positive praise from cancer survivors who have read your book?
SS: I love that the book has taken wings on its own. When I hear feedback, it’s usually about the cancer and humor and hard times. Those are the chapters that draw people in. People write from all over the country that have been diagnosed saying, “Thank you for writing this part in the book.” People are hungry for honest conversation about what to do when you hit the crisis point.
MP: Was it difficult not to allow the cancer diagnosis to define you?
SS: It’s very difficult to not allow the diagnosis to define you. For the first couple of years I was just excited to be out of it. Now when I go for mammograms, it’s stressful. The diagnosis never goes away, because you never know. It stays with you for the rest of your life. What’s important is finding some joy in waking up and having another day. You’ve been given a second chance. I wake up in the morning and I worry about work or I don’t feel well and think, “Do I have cancer of the fingernail or something?” Then I remember that I am a very blessed individual and focus on it everyday.
MP: In your book, you discuss packing up and traveling the world for two years. What caused you to decide to do this?
SS: Utter confusion. I had practiced law for 10 years, yet knew I was getting called to the ministry but wasn’t sure how that would work. So, I did what I did best, and I ran. I was able to take two years off. During my second year off, I drove Alaska highway; I fly fished, camped, came back into the state and hit every national park in the country. There’s something so freeing about a solo trip, in your jeep, stopping at a camp site, meeting new people. I think it was a coming of age for me. You read all the books, you study the things you want to but haven’t experienced it. You pray in ways you haven’t thought about. It changed my life in terms of spiritual and perspective of the world.
MP: How does being a comedian and a minister continue to fulfill and balance your life?
SS: Each grounds the other. The standup helps keep you in the loop of how do you find funny things in life, and continue to find humor in things. The church grounds the standup by putting it in real terms. In church, one doesn’t have a job, this one is going through a divorce, there’s a cancer diagnosis etc. That is the reality of life. If you can’t take the humor and ground it in reality, you have a problem. A minister and a standup are the exact same jobs, if you do them right – standing with people in good times and bad.
MP: If you could give one piece of advice for those with and having survived cancer, what would it be?
SS: Keep hope. No matter what state you’re in, no matter what your circumstances. There is a reason you’ve been given the gift of waking up that day, and the gift to give. Until the last breath we take, we’ve been given a gift to offer someone or something to someone as long as we breathe.