Laughter is the Best Medicine

by Susan Sparks

“Is this going to take long?” I asked the nurse. I needed to know because I had wedged this terribly inconvenient medical test between two important meetings, and the time for the second was quickly approaching.

“I don’t think so,” she answered. The door then opened, and the doctor appeared with a pathologist in tow. Not a good sign.

“Ms. Sparks, I’m afraid the cells are cancerous,” the doctor said in a flat monotone while looking at the report. “We will need to schedule surgery, then talk about radiation and chemo.” They both gave me a look of “bummer” and quickly left the room.

I sat stunned with disbelief. A minute ago I was worried about a consulting gig for Goldman Sachs. Now I had cancer?

After a few moments of silence, the well-meaning nurse turned to me and said, “Don’t you worry, honey. The Lord will take care.”

I’m sure I’ve said something similar to others in crisis, but right then it hit me wrong.

“Take care?” I snapped. “I think the Lord should have started a little earlier in taking care—like a couple of years ago when these cells started growing!”

She put her arm on my shoulder with this knowing look and said more forcefully, “Honey, he will take care.”

I rolled my eyes.

He has never had breast cancer, so I seriously doubt that he has any idea of how to ‘take care’ of this!”

The nurse shook her head in distain and walked out, leaving me alone with what were soon to become my two constant companions: cancer and sarcasm.

In the beginning it was simply too much to comprehend that I was now one of “those people” who had cancer. I had read that one of the best ways to come to grips with denial is to share the news with other people. Bad plan.

“You have cancer? Wow. Does it hurt?”

“I’m so sorry. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

“My best friend had breast cancer. I miss her so.”

People can be so insensitive. The only alternative? Soften the blow through humor.

After a preliminary Google search on “cancer and humor,” I found myself immersed in a number of sites dedicated to funny cancer products.

Within days, I was drinking my morning coffee out of a mug that said, “My oncologist can beat up your oncologist.”

Then a new magnet appeared on my refrigerator: “Cancer—it’s not just an astrological sign anymore.”

At some point I bought a notepad that had a checklist at the top: “Buy milk, get gas, kick cancer’s butt.”

But my all-time favorite was a T-shirt with big red letters that said, “Save the Titties.”

Every time I saw that mug, magnet, or T-shirt, I started laughing. And you know what? I felt better.

At first, I thought I felt better because I was simply using humor to block the shock and pain. But then I started doing some reading about humor and healing and discovered that laughter actually brings on a natural high in the body. In a study at Stanford University, researchers showed that laughing stimulates the parts of our brain that use dopamine—a kind of “feel good” chemical messenger.

Fabulous! That meant that laughter falls into the category of two of my favorite things: chocolate and chili peppers. All three produce a major boost of endorphins, nature’s own “happy pill”: chili peppers through capsasin, chocolate through serotonin, and laughter through the increased oxygen flow.

Medical studies have even shown that laughing produces the same level of mood-altering endorphins as a good work out. In fact, according to some studies, 15 minutes of laughing can burn 80 calories, or a small chocolate brownie. Elliptical machine …or laughing? Not a hard call.

I felt better not because I was ignoring the pain, but because the humor took the edge off a little. It allowed me to turn directly into the ugly face of reality. Emily Dickenson wrote, “When giving me the truth, give it to me on the slant so I can bear it.” Humor was the slant that allowed me to see the truth, hear it, and ultimately bear it.

Joseph Richman, professor emeritus at Albert Einstein Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, explains that laughter also counteracts “feelings of alienation, a major factor in depression and suicide.” Humor is about shared experiences and a feeling of belonging. It improves our mood through social connections. And when we feel less alone, we feel stronger.

The first week after my diagnosis, I was sent to get a CAT scan. In addition to being scared out of my wits, I was also in a surly mood, thanks to all the mountains of tests and appointments. After I arrived, the technician informed me that one of the tests he was going to perform was a liver scan. Allowing my anger to get the best of me, I said with a sigh, “Well, I had two beers last night. Just take that into consideration.”

He looked at me with an exhausted glance, then left the room to administer the test.

After a few minutes, he returned with a grave look on his face. “We’re not supposed to give test results on the spot.” He paused, looked at the floor, and shook his head. “But you clearly have the early stages of what appears to be ‘Bud Light’ syndrome.” Then he burst out laughing.

I stared at him in utter disbelief, then started laughing myself. As I walked home, I realized that I felt more relaxed and less angry. While a kind gesture, the technician’s humor may have played a more significant role in my recovery than just a simple joke.

“After you laugh, you go into a relaxed state,” explains John Morreall, professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary. “Your blood pressure and heart rate drop below normal, so you feel profoundly relaxed.”

It is no secret that laughing is an amazing healer. Back in 1979, The New England Journal of Medicine published a report based on noted journalist and editor of the Saturday Review, Norman Cousins. In the 1960s Cousins had been diagnosed with a debilitating spinal disease and given a 1 in 500 chance of survival. Based on his belief in the importance of environment on healing, Cousins checked himself out of the hospital and into a hotel, where he took large doses of vitamin C and watched continual episodes of “Candid Camera” and the Marx Brothers. He found, over time, that laughter stimulated chemicals in his body that allowed him several hours of pain-free sleep. He continued the treatment until, eventually, his disease went into remission, and he was able to return to work. The study became the basis for a best-selling book, Anatomy of an Illness, as well as a television movie.

Since Cousins’s groundbreaking study, consistent evidence has shown that laughter, over time, offers significant medical benefits, including boosting the immune system, lowering blood pressure, improving heart and respiratory functions, even regulating blood sugar. As Dr. Lee Berk, a professor at Loma Linda University’s Schools of Medicine and Public Health, put it, “If you took what we now know about the capability of laughter to manipulate the immune system, and bottled it, it would need FDA approval.”

Eight years after my diagnosis, I am cancer free. I am thankful for the medical care I was able to receive; but most of all I am thankful for the joyful attitude of the doctors, nurses, and caregivers with whom I was privileged to work. While the surgery and radiation certainly had a part, I am convinced that the encouragement I received to laugh was the most powerful of treatment of all.


Article excerpted from Laugh Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor (c) 2010 by Rev. Susan Sparks. Permission granted by SkyLight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, VT. 

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