There are those among us who get a headache and immediately assume a brain tumor is lurking. Or those who see a suspicious spot on their arm and do a Google Images search to confirm it is, indeed, a melanoma. Of course most of us are always wrong; particularly because cancer and bad things happen to other people, not us.
Except when it doesn’t.
Karen Walsh, 40, was having lunch with friends last fall when she felt a mild pain under her ribs. “We actually joked about taking me to the hospital for a cramp,” she told TODAY. It was a scenario likely no different than many before her have faced, except in her case, it turned out to be a justifiable worry. A few days later, Walsh was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer that had spread to her liver and lymph nodes.
Since then, she’s been undergoing chemotherapy every couple of weeks, with over 20 rounds notched in her belt to date. You wouldn’t blame the actress and mom of two if she chose to hide under her blankets and cower just thinking about her bad fortune, or the thought of how her future could be bleak. But instead, she’s turned her cancer into a raucously good time.
“[There are times] when I’m like, ‘Oh god, I have cancer. And I have two young kids, my husband’s company’s closing, we don’t know what we’re going to do about insurance. You know, we have a lot going on in our home that’s really stressful,” she told The Huffington Post. “I think it’s really important to let that out, but I don’t feel the need to sit in it longer than I need to sit in it.”
But she’s done more than just not sit in her misfortune; she’s been using her Instagram account to show the world — and cancer — that chemo and Stage IV cancer don’t have to be met with fear. And that sometimes, laughter is the best medicine.
With the help of her friends, Walsh has hilariously recreated scenes from movies such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Rocky, and TV shows like The Golden Girls and Wonder Woman — all while getting her weekly chemo treatments. She even channeled superheroes, characters from classic literature, and badass female icons like Rosie the Riveter. The photos almost always show her dressed up and surrounded by loving family and friends who join in — in character — for the fun, and the support.
Escaping her cancer-patient persona helps pass the time while getting an infusion of chemo — and it’s also helped her doctors and nurses distract themselves from what can otherwise be a grim day-to-day journey dealing with cancer.
“I actually really don’t like getting my photo taken normally,” Walsh told TODAY. “I do love taking photos and documenting things through photography. I was also scared and I think that prompted me to want documentation for my children, just in case, as dark as that may sound.”
In addition, she wants her kids to see the photos as a good example of “female empowerment.””
“I haven’t a clue what my future looks like,” she said, “though I do like to invite people to my 90th birthday party in the Virgin Islands. I want to leave an imprint that encourages them to envision a world I dream of for them.”
Walsh hopes that by sharing the photos publicly, she’s sending a message of “forward motion, joy or strength.” While most people won’t have to endure what she currently is, by putting herself out there comically instead of tragically, it serves as a reminder that cancer or other tragedies doesn’t need to become who you are.
And judging by the range of uplifting comments her photos are getting, it seems her mission is definitely paying off.
“I’ve been a cancer support volunteer for 16 years and I have to say that your photos and your amazing attitude gave my spirit a much-needed lift tonight. You are in my prayers!” wrote one user.
A cancer diagnosis can involuntarily change your life. But if the outcome is out of your control anyway and you can choose to either laugh or cry, the fear of the unknown will likely be far more palatable if you can find ways to whoop it up instead of weep. And when it comes to whooping it up in spite of cancer, Karen Walsh is showing us all how it’s done.