Battling Cancer With T-Shirts And Laughter

Linda Hill with some of the shirts in her line. i i

Linda Hill drew from her own experiences with Hodgkin's lymphoma and thyroid, breast and colon cancer to produce T-shirts poking fun at frightening and deadly diseases. Howard Berkes/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Howard Berkes/NPR
Linda Hill with some of the shirts in her line.

Linda Hill drew from her own experiences with Hodgkin's lymphoma and thyroid, breast and colon cancer to produce T-shirts poking fun at frightening and deadly diseases.

Howard Berkes/NPR

Twenty-nine years ago, Linda Hill sat in a cancer center in California waiting for her first round of chemotherapy. She was 19 and had a softball-sized tumor in her chest and a diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Hill's parents were told it was time to have their daughter do things she'd always wanted to do because she seemed to have little time left.

"I had it everywhere," recalls Hill, now 48. "I had it in all my lymph glands — head to toe — and so it was quite serious."

Hill noticed something about the other cancer patients in the waiting room, most of whom were quite a bit older: "They were all just angry and bitter and sad," she says. "And I thought, 'I don't want to live like that. I don't want my kids to remember me that way.' "

Laughing At Cancer With Zingers

Three decades, seven kids and three more devastating cancers later, Hill has found a way to keep anger, bitterness and sadness at bay. She laughs at cancer and all it has taken from her, including her thyroid, spleen, colon and breasts.

In fact, when we met in the ornate wood-lined lobby of the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Hill wore a faded green long-sleeve T-shirt with these embroidered words: "I lost my colon ... but I'm still full of crap!"

A T-shirt displaying one of Linda Hill's cancer aphorisms.

The inspiration for this T-shirt came from Linda Hill's own confusion after enduring many months of chemotherapy. Howard Berkes/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Howard Berkes/NPR

The aphorism is just one of many cancer zingers that Hill has created for a T-shirt business that focuses on helping cancer patients cope. She chuckles as she browses her T-shirt display just outside the institute's gift shop.

"This is our No. 1 seller," she laughs, as she pulls a mustard-colored shirt from the rack that features this message: "Of course they're fake, the real ones tried to kill me!"

More Of Linda Hill's Cancer-Fighting T-Shirt Humor

Does this shirt make my boobs look small?

I gave them my breasts and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.

Mastectomy — a surgical procedure to help a woman find a real man.

I hope my kids inherit their mother's prostate.

Linda Hill's T-shirts are sold at cancer centers across the country and through her Web site.

The one-liners flow from the single mom, her five daughters and two sons. This is a family of practical jokers looking for laughs in the oddest places. Hill once put bouillon cubes in a shower head so the kids were sprayed with chicken broth. And when the family chooses sides for games, there's always one child protesting: "I don't want Mom. She doesn't have a colon!"

Battling Thyroid, Breast And Colon Cancer

So the Hills couldn't help themselves when mom faced thyroid, breast and colon cancer — all in the past six years. As Linda was wheeled into surgery for a double mastectomy, a petite daughter tenderly whispered to her mom: "Thanks so much for making me NOT the smallest-breasted person" in the family.

With five girls, the breast lines snowballed. "You're going to have to date guys who like butts and thighs," the daughters joked. Two daughters, described by Hill as "rather well-endowed," told her, "Guys are going to look you in the eye now, Mom."

Hill remembers thinking, "We ought to put these things on shirts, because this is just so funny."

Now, 800 T-shirts later, Hill has developed a fledgling market that helps patients laugh through chemo. The shirts are sold for about $25 on Hill's Web site, and at cancer centers across the country.

"Everybody has their own way of getting through things," explains Hill. "This just must be my way of doing it."

Ongoing Treatment

Hill is still being treated for breast cancer. So the jokes just keep on coming.

"They took a lump from my breast, so why not my thigh?" another favorite shirt says, prompting another laugh from Hill. "There's not a woman on the planet that doesn't relate to that one," she says.

She pulls others from the rack outside the gift shop. "This is a great one," Hill chuckles, reading the line a daughter wrote: "Mastectomy: $12,000. Radiation: $30,000. Chemotherapy: $11,000. Never wearing a bra again: Priceless."

Gift shop manager Dianne Rydman watches the reactions of patients.

"We have a lot of people in here who don't laugh about a lot," says Rydman. "And they can sit out there and chuckle over that basket of shirts."

Some of the shirts have serious themes, including: "Blue eyes run in your family. Cancer runs in mine," or "Cancer took her life. It never touched her spirit."

Hill's smile fades as she pauses to consider those words.

"Cancer does not define us," Hill asserts. "It's not my colon that makes me love to bake. It's not my breasts that make me crazy and outgoing. And it wasn't my thyroid that gave me my faith in God."

But the smile returns as she reminds herself of all those body parts lost to cancer.

"At least I've had cancer on parts you can remove," she jokes. "It's a brutal weight loss program."

Despite Losses, A Cancer Celebrity

Hodgkin's Lymphoma And Multiple Cancers

About 8 percent of cancer survivors experience multiple primary cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. And women like Linda Hill, who are first diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, especially at younger ages, have dramatically increased risks for additional cancer diagnoses.

A 2007 paper published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology estimates the increased risk for Hodgkin's lymphoma survivors for specific cancers. Compared with the risk in the general population, Hodgkin's lymphoma survivors overall have six times the risk of female breast cancer, four times the risk of colon cancer, and three times the risk of thyroid cancer. Radiation exposure related to medical treatment is an established risk factor for both breast and thyroid cancers. The paper's lead author, Dr. David Hodgson, points out that the risks of multiple cancers are largely associated with treatments that are now outdated.

—Howard Berkes

Hill's brand of chemo comedy isn't making money. She says she's $7,000 in debt, but still donates $2 from every sale to the Huntsman Cancer Institute. She's not quitting her day job as a fresh produce manager for a food distributor.

She's also become a bit of a cancer celebrity at the institute. Multiple primary cancers occur in only about 8 percent of cancer survivors, according to the American Cancer Society. And Hill's pattern of cancers illustrates a phenomenon researchers have documented.

At Huntsman, she says, she's so prolific, researchers line up for blood and tissue samples after her procedures and surgeries.

"I can make a cancer cell, and I can make it fast!" Hill boasts.

And she's survived longer than expected. Hill's voice breaks again and tears flow as she describes the milestones she has managed to reach, despite all those cancers.

"I'm going to be a grandma," she says, gulping for breath. "I saw another daughter get married. And I saw another football season of my son. I've got another graduating and going to college." Hill is almost whispering when she says: "And I'd rather they remember me having fun."

She adds, "I can have a normal life and just joke about everything. Maybe it's my way of dodging death."

Hill quickly composes herself and gets back to the jokes, revealing the zingers to come.

"We've got one," she says, chuckling again, "that's going to look like a rearview mirror of a car that says, 'Objects in shirt are smaller than they appear.' "

Hill is also hearing from people with cancers yet to make it on her shirts. Ovarian and pancreatic jokes are on the way.

But Hill's best line isn't on any shirt. She uses it to describe herself.

"I'm so much more than a boob," she says, laughing. "I'm so much more than cancer."

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.