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Whose Loin is it Anyway? Improv and Prostate Cancer Part 2

Last updated: April 2022

As mentioned last time, my six rules of improvisational acting and living are

  • Yes, and
  • Listen
  • Make your partner look good
  • Suggestions are better than questions
  • Respect boundaries
  • Embrace failure

The second rule, “Listen,” makes the other five possible. Maybe it should be the first rule, because if you haven’t heard what your partner is saying, you don’t know how to “Yes, and.” Listening is essential for a good marriage. As my wife always says to me, “Haven’t you heard a word I said to you?” In my defense, I was writing this article the last time she said that.

Many subtleties with listening

Listening is hard work. Listening may require ears, eyes, a nose, skin and/or a brain to interpret all the inputs. In the audio realm, volume, inflection, pacing, and accents affect the message. A person may say “I love you” in many ways. Think of how John Wayne, Johnny Depp, or Johnny Bravo might say it: I Love You. I LOVE You. I Love YOU. I LOVE YOU! I L-O-V-E You! I Love YOU?

The same words can convey many subtleties. Visually, body language matters a lot. Touching or not touching sends a message. Even the distance between people can convey something about their feelings. Even our nostrils may inform us of the true meaning of a message, especially when our scene partner hasn’t showered.

You had my attention at "cancer"

So how does this inform our cancer journey? We’re going to have to listen more intelligently than ever to really understand what’s happening. We’re going to be encouraged to do some things and not do others by dozens of professionals and loved ones. You may even find useful advice on an internet group.

Exercise: Replace “I love you” with “I have prostate cancer” in the previous exercise.

I have prostate cancer. I have PROSTATE cancer. I have prostate CANCER. I H-A-V-E F-R-E-A-K-I-N-G P-R-O-S-T-A-T-E C-A-N-C-E-R. The same words, delivered differently, convey different impressions.


My urologist was pretty matter-of-fact about it. His nonverbal communication was stone cold; he handed me a book on diet and exercise and a business card for a local cancer treatment center.

We do expect professionals to behave professionally, but this dude was all business. Reminder to self: never play poker with this doctor. Also, a reminder to self: don’t answer questions sounding like John Wayne, Johnny Depp, or Johnny Bravo.

The power of listening

In one improv game, a character can only use one of two sentences, both supplied at random or from an audience suggestion. Your scene partner can say anything they want, but you’re limited to two sentences. You would be amazed how much context can be conveyed by body language, inflection, or volume.

Doing research on treatment options felt like this game. I had a very small cancer vocabulary, but I was talking with people who were fluent in medicine, oncology, and psychology. It seemed all I could say was, “I’m not sure about that,” and, “that sounds kind of risky.”

Listening skills come in handy when talking with friends and family about cancer. You could misunderstand their message from a transcript of the conversations, but using all your senses enables you to experience the moment more fully. Sometimes words are completely unnecessary with a loved one.

Understanding better

The better you get at listening, the better you get at improv. The better you get at listening, the better you get at understanding the medical and interpersonal parts of your cancer journey. How do we usually know if a message is understood? By the reaction of the people who hear it.

If you’ll excuse me, my wife is asking me to empty the dishwasher, so I’m going to empty it. You can’t stay married for 45 years without learning something about listening.

Next Up: Making Your Partner Look Good

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