THE BLOG
06/03/2016 03:34 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2017

Comedy vs. Cancer: Quincy Jones' HBO Comedy Special Embodies the Message of National Cancer Survivors Day

Quincy Jones doesn't look sick. Watching the 32-year-old comedian confidently command a stage, you wouldn't know that he's entering his eleventh month of a cancer prognosis that gave him a year to live. But he is.

Similarly, walking into your own home you likely wouldn't know that it could be harboring the same toxin that left Jones with a terminal diagnosis. But it very well could be.

Jones is battling stage 4 mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. He was diagnosed in July 2015, and the doctor who delivered the news told him to get his affairs in order quickly because he didn't have much time. Jones, who said he was offended by the grim prognosis he was given, decided use that time to raise awareness of this entirely preventable disease that is trying to put him in an early grave.

Wanting to make use of the year, if it really was all he had, Jones quickly started a Kickstarter page in hopes of crowdfunding a long-time dream: performing a one-hour comedy special. The fundraising campaign caught some media attention, and before long, Jones was sharing his story on Ellen Degeneres' daytime talk show. Degeneres, who has a long history of making dreams come true, pulled some strings and a week later, invited Jones back on the show to announce he'd get his special after all--and that it'd be aired on HBO.

Jones is calling his show "Burning the Light," a nod to his plan to ignore his one-year life expectancy the way comics ignore the light signaling them to end their set. This theme is perfectly fitting with National Cancer Survivorship Day on Sunday, June 5.

In its 29th year, National Cancer Survivorship Day is a celebration of life observed on the first Sunday of June each year. The goal is to "honor cancer survivors and to show the world that life after a cancer diagnosis can be fruitful, rewarding, and even inspiring." Jones tries to live that idea every day on the comedy stage.

"There is no cancer when I'm on that stage. There's only me, telling my jokes," Jones says. Of course, not every cancer survivor is a comic, but each of us can find our "stage" where we can transcend our diagnoses and live our lives instead of our cancers.

Unfortunately, mesothelioma diagnoses like Jones' are always terminal -- many victims are killed by the disease within a year of symptoms first showing up. There is no cure for mesothelioma; the only way to avoid the disease to is prevent asbestos exposure, but that's no easy task. Asbestos--despite being a known carcinogen--remains legal in the U.S. and most of the world. In addition to mesothelioma, asbestos exposure can cause lung, gastrointestinal, colorectal, laryngeal, and ovarian cancers; as well as non-malignant lung and pleural disorder, according to the World Health Organization.

There's nothing funny about mesothelioma, or any kind of cancer, but Jones is trying to use his comedy to infuse one of the darkest parts of life with a little light. He's not the first person to find humor helpful in dealing with his diagnosis.

"Cancer is probably the most unfunny thing in the world, but I'm a comedienne, and even cancer wasn't going to stop me from seeing the humor in what I was going through," said Gilda Radner, a former Saturday Night Live star who died in 1989 after a years-long battle with ovarian cancer.

The old adage "Laughter is the best medicine" may seem flippant in the face of such deadly diagnoses, especially when there is no real cure, but according to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America laughing really can have therapeutic effects--mentally, emotionally, and yes, even physically.

"Laughter is a natural medicine. It lifts our spirits and makes us feel happy. It can bring people together. It can help us feel more alive and empowered," the CTCA says on its Laughter Therapy web page. In addition, studies have shown laughing can boost the immune system, stimulate the heart and lungs, relieve pain and improve mental functions, like memory, alertness, and creativity.

When faced with a diagnosis as dire as mesothelioma, laughter can be hard to come by, which is why we at the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) are so impressed with Jones' brave work to raise simultaneously lift spirits and raise awareness around cancer survivorship. With so few people fully aware of the risk posed by asbestos, increasing awareness is crucial to ending asbestos-caused diseases. Asbestos fibers are essentially invisible to the naked eye and are odorless, making them hard to identify and giving asbestos the reputation of a "silent killer," but Jones is not letting it silence him.

As E.E. Cummings famously put it, "The most wasted of all days is one without laughter." Jones' diagnoses didn't leave him with any days to waste, so he found a way to keep the laughter going. On National Cancer Survivorship Day and everyday, see if you can find a way to find your new normal--to keep being you in spite of your diagnosis, because none of us have days to waste. And if you need a little laughter therapy to help you through it, give Jones' special a watch (pro tip: it's available to stream on HBONow)--it might be just what the doctor ordered.