'What Else Can You Do but Laugh?'

By Randy Fitzgerald | August 13th, 2019

When illness invokes a competitive spirit

Randy Fitzgerald

A few weeks ago, Barb and I were watching an interview with Alex Trebek on the CBS show Sunday Morning. The longtime Jeopardy! host/moderator was describing his emotions as he had gone through the various stages of diagnosis of pancreatic cancer – and, surprisingly, describing those reactions in a good-humored, laid-back way. I think he was trying to make the listener more comfortable with the hard facts of confronting such a deadly disease.

Trebek indicated the understandable alarm he felt the first time his doctor mentioned cancer as a possible cause of the stomach pain he had been feeling for a while. Then, after tests, he learned that it was, specifically, pancreatic cancer – certainly not one of the “good ones,” if there is such a thing. His alarm increased considerably when he heard that his cancer was already in the fourth stage, meaning it had already spread to other parts of his body.

Certainly all that was a huge shock to him, but viewers had a shock of their own as they watched him describe with seeming amusement how he had actually become somewhat competitive over time with his diagnosis, along the lines of, “Oh, you have cancer? Well, I have PANCREATIC cancer,” and “Yours is third stage? Well, mine is FOURTH STAGE.”

He had Jane Pauley laughing out loud, until she realized with some embarrassment that this wasn’t a laughing matter. But Trebek reassured her that they might as well laugh. He said something along the lines of, “What else can you do but laugh?”

What Trebek is doing, I’m sure, is calling upon every inch of his competitive game-master spirit – and his humor – to tackle an ultimate challenge.


I was a little stunned when Barb reminded me that I had exhibited my own medical competition when I suffered a heart attack a couple of years back. I had had a quadruple bypass, and I admit I was quick to make sure people knew that it wasn’t merely a double bypass or a triple but an actual QUADRUPLE bypass, as though I had achieved the home run of heart bypass surgery. And then I’d always throw in that I had a bovine valve replacement at the same time.

In my case, I wasn’t presenting my story with much humor. My best attempt at it was to reveal that my grown children were now referring to me as Captain Beefheart. I told my story in prideful detail, though, because I was always marveling that I had somehow miraculously come through something so serious, to gratefully enjoy whatever length of life I have left.

But … I must admit I felt chastised when I finally encountered a man who had had a quintuple bypass. I was properly one-upped. His was a home run with bases loaded.

More witticisms from Randy Fitzgerald…


Barb’s a fine one to talk – her competitive nature is something to behold. She’s so competitive that when presented with anything remotely described as a “test,” she’s going to go full tilt to pass it – so much so that she’ll sacrifice the purpose of the test if necessary.

One time she came home from a stress test recounting proudly that she had passed it. “But I really had bad chest pain for the last few minutes of it.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” I said. “Didn’t you tell the doctor that you were in pain?”

“Not then,” she said. “I told him afterwards, and he said, ‘Why in the world didn’t you tell us? We would have stopped the test.’ But I didn’t want him to stop it. I wanted to pass it.”

I do think that defeats the purpose of a stress test; however, it does indicate she might make a good Jeopardy! contestant.

Randy Fitzgerald is the author of Flights of Fancy: Stories, Conversations and Life Travels with a Bemused Columnist and His Whimsical Wife, published last fall. He was a longtime public relations director at the University of Richmond and columnist for The Richmond News Leader and the Richmond Times-Dispatchand taught modern American literature at Virginia Union University. RFitzger@gmail.com

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