Pastor keeps the faith, and keeps it funny, in face of stage-serious cancer

It’s universally acknowledged that cancer sucks. Mantle cell lymphoma, a rare and aggressive type, is especially sucky. It almost always affects only men in their old age—not 37 year olds like Jason Micheli, a pastor, husband, and father. “I like to think I’m unique in all things, and it turns out I am, in the case of diseases,” he says.

This type of bone cancer is so deadly that Micheli's doctors didn’t classify it with the normal four stages, they call it “stage-serious.” As he struggled with despair and faced his mortality, he resolved that cancer would not kill his spirit, faith, or sense of humor. Bracing, irreverent humor animates Cancer Is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo (Fortress Press, $24.99 hardcover, December 1, 2016), “a no-BS take on what it’s like to journey through stage-serious cancer and struggle with the God who may or may not be doing this to you,” Micheli says. “I hope this book will help you or someone you love laugh through the crucible of cancer.”

“After eight cycles of nine chemo drugs, I believe laughter is still the best medicine,” he says. “Laughter is the surest sign you’re not alone, because joy is the most unmistakable indication of God’s presence.” A sense of humor—Micheli’s is dark, ironic, and leavened with a charming silliness—is especially helpful during chemo treatments, he found: “Being deadly serious here of all places is the surest way to feel seriously dead already.”

The laughter that Micheli encourages is not to be confused with happiness. “I have stage serious cancer, I’d be crop circles crazy if I were happy about it. Instead it’s laughter that feels like joy, that traces the line between disaster and the farce that we call life, feeling free—genuinely free—to be myself with others and before God.”

A pastor and theologian, Micheli’s reflections are not trite. He writes about being stricken with lethal cancer in the midst of a promising career and raising two young children. He struggles with what he believes. Figuring this out for himself—not to mention explaining it to his congregation and his sons—makes theology now a matter of life and death.

After eight excruciating rounds of chemo, Micheli’s tumors were gone. Doctors don’t talk about remission with mantel cell lymphoma, but it’s as good news as he could have hoped for. “I don’t know what the future will bring. I don’t know if this story is over,” he writes. “In whatever life my family and I have left are more marvels than we can count.”

Jason Micheli is executive pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, VA, and writes the popular Tamed Cynic blog. He lives in the Washington, DC area with his wife, Ali, and their two sons.