Grave Jokes: If your hand is bigger than your face, you have cancer

Text: If your hand is bigger than your face that means you have cancer.

Context: My informant – a 25-year-old man from Reno, Nevada – explained to me that this was a trick he learned while in middle school, and he proceeded to play it on his friends and siblings. He would bait his victims by saying “if your hand is bigger than your face that means you have cancer,” and when the gullible victim raised their hand to their face to see if their fingers and palm covered the entirety of their face, he would smack the back of their hand so that their face collided with the front of their hand. He would play on the common fear of people finding out they might have a brutal disease, and in an attempt to self-diagnose, he would leave them with a red, hand-shaped mark on their face.

Analysis: I remember falling for this trick a couple times as a child, and I fear I must admit I played it on some of my friends as well. When a young mind hears “if your hand is bigger than your face that means you have cancer,” the instant panic that you feel over potentially having a disease that has sparked lots of fear due to its brutality takes over, and you most definitely want to see if your hand if bigger than your face to know if you might be sick. After your hand collides with your face and your assailant laughs at their attack, you are left confused: trying to see if you have an incurable disease has only left you with knowledge that your nose is red and throbbing. In the chapter “Jokes that Follow MassMediated Disasters in a Global Electronic Age” by Christie Davies, the author writes that disaster jokes are “jokes felt to be funny because they are playing with someone else’s forbidden notions, albeit ones that are generically similar to those that are the basis of more familiar local disaster jokes” (31). If one was to find out that they had cancer, it would undoubtedly be a disaster, so the trick of telling someone that “if your hand is bigger than your face that means you have cancer” is a play on the common fear of something happening to them that they would never hope for.

My informant expressed that this was a prank he only really saw and played as a child, and as he got older, it vanished. This prank only being present among adolescents is telling of the impressionability of this age group. Cancer has been feared for a long time, but the majority of people know that it would take much more than measuring your face with your hand to receive a cancer diagnosis. Children, however, haven’t been exposed to much, and hearing they might have a disease they know little about prompts them to fall for a trick that is only meant to leave them embarrassed and unsure of their health. In hindsight, it’s clear that the prank’s allure lies not in its realism, but in its ability to tap into our primal fears and evoke an emotional response. It serves as a reminder of the innocence of youth, where even the most serious of topics can be reduced to a momentary source of amusement.


Davies, Christie. “Jokes that Follow MassMediated Disasters in a Global Electronic Age.” In Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture, edited by Peter Narvaez, 15-34. Utah State University Press, 2003.