Cancer is no laughing matter. And as we’ve discovered, neither is the continuing presence of COVID-19.
Yet if you happened to pass by a meeting room in a cancer center or overhear the Zoom sessions where I lead writing programs those living with cancer, laughter is something you’ll hear. Even though we’re writing about the emotional impact accompanying a cancer diagnosis, laughter is always part of our sessions. Counterintuitive perhaps, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that laughter is good medicine, just as Norman Cousins described in his 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness. Cousins wasn’t the first to advocate for the healing power of laughter. Mark Twain had already done so, writing, “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that’s laughter,” he said. “The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”
I grew up in an extended family who loved telling humorous stories and sharing laughter together. Losses were mourned, yes, but soon afterward, the funny stories that were associated with the relative were told regularly at our family holiday gatherings. And more than anything, I remember the fun of sitting among my aunts and uncles and sharing the memories and the laughter. Life became brighter; there was no time for a bad mood, and somehow, the humor seemed to bind us more closely together.
The power of laughter to help us heal is so great that some time ago, reading a 2015 issue of CURE Today Magazine, it didn’t entirely surprise me that, according to author Jeannette Moninger, many hospitals across America offer laughter programs for cancer patients, no doubt inspired by Norman Cousin’s experience and the research on laughter’s benefits. Moninger described a few:
At North Kansas City Hospital, patients can watch funny movies…Duke Medicine offers a Laugh Mobile, a rolling cart from which adult patients in oncology wards can check out humorous books and silly items like whoopee cushions and rubber chickens. And the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Program sends…clowns to 16 children’s hospitals nationwide to help put smiles on the faces of ill children…
Even as far back as the 13th century, surgeons used humor to distract patients from the agony of painful medical procedures. (Given the absence of anesthesia, laughter had to be good medicine!) Those early surgeons were on to something, borne out since by many research studies since. Laugh, and not only the world laughs with you: your body releases endorphins, the “feel good hormones that function as the body’s natural painkillers,” Moninger states, “the same hormones that create the “runner’s high.” Endorphins also decrease the body’s levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with chronic stress. In fact, cortisol has a number of negative effects on our bodies, compromising our immune system, tensing up our muscles, elevating blood pressure—all of which laughter helps to counteract.
We all need a little laughter in our lives, no matter if we’re dealing with cancer or in this extended time of COVID—whether in person or, as many of us are now, on Zoom with friends and family. Laughter helps to overcome loneliness and the mild depression that many of us are combatting in these extended lockdowns. We need to laugh just as much as sometimes, we need to cry. As cancer survivor Jim Higley wrote in a 2012 issue of the magazine, Coping with Cancer, laughter became invaluable during his treatment and recovery:
…when you are raised with the gift of laughter, as I was, it can’t stay suppressed forever. It’s too powerful. Thank goodness for that. I eventually could see bits of “ha-ha” in my own life. Certainly not in the cancer, but in the mind-blowing circumstances that suddenly consumed my life. And laughing at parts of those experiences made me feel a little more alive.
The funniest part of it all was that the more I allowed myself to laugh, the more therapeutic my tears became.
(“Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer,” Coping with Cancer, March/April 2012)
Try it. It’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about. Yesterday, my husband and I recalled the humorous story of my first—and last—blind date. My grandson, age 12, has decided he can cheer up his grandparents by sending us emails from Japan, filled with various memes and online games, ones I have tried and failed to win, which amuses him and, of course, me. Just the fact he has written with so many “resources” for humor counteracts the greyness of our COVID lockdown life. It’s an email full of smiles.
Find a little laughter in your life this week. Dig back into your memories this week—the fun times, when you laughed so hard, tears ran down your cheeks. Take a break from writing about and instead, try writing a little humor. (Even a medical experience can have humor at times. I was once diagnosed as having a “loose screw” after suffering swelling and pain in my forehead, where I do have a steel plate. It wasn’t a loose screw, as it turned out, just a need for taking antibiotics before dental work. But the diagnosis gave us a good laugh, helped relieve the worry and got me to another specialist for a second opinion—one who provided the solution to my forehead discomfort).
Perhaps you have a few memories of times that made you smile, even laugh aloud whenever you think about them. Write one, that funny story, and let a little “ha, ha” brighten your day.. After all, as Charlie Chaplin said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”