Let’s face it: Cancer is no laughing matter. From diagnosis through treatment to survivorship, healing from cancer is full of confusion, fear, anxiety—even pain. Patients often struggle with depression and unease, and likely feel as far from laughter as they’ve ever been.
But what if we could make cancer a laughing matter? Or at least bring the power of laughter into the healing process?
Pioneers of Laughter Power
We’ve all heard the old adage, “Laughter is the best medicine,” and I’ve seen firsthand how laughter can improve the health of the body. But using laughter as therapy is actually nothing new.
Surgeons as far back as the 1300s used laughter and humor as a way of distracting patients from pain. And in the last century in the U.S., Dr. William Fry became the first expert in the science of laughter and even published the first studies on what happens in the body when we laugh.
After Dr. Fry came Norman Cousins who got the world talking with his “laughter recovery” from the painful ankylosing spondylitis in 1964. Finding no success from morphine or other remedies for his pain, he claimed that just 10 minutes of laughter would provide him with two hours of pain-free rest. His success actually inspired many other studies into the science behind the positive effects of laughter. He’s credited with saying,
“To the extent laughter or any of the positive emotions can block panic, depression, despair, we have a therapeutic ally.“
Laughter Does a Body Good
Everyone loves a good laugh, but how does it make a difference when you’re healing from cancer? Well, scientists believe laughter causes a myriad of healthy effects inside the body, including:
- Boosting the immune system
- Improving the effectiveness of the circulatory system
- Increasing the amount of oxygen to the body
- Stimulating your lungs and heart
- Relaxing muscles
- Releasing endorphins (the body’s natural pain relief)
- Easing digestion
- Regulating blood pressure
- Improving cognitive functions, such as memory and creativity
A 2011 study in the Proceeding of the Royal Society B showed a direct correlation between laughter and a higher pain threshold. Much of this comes from the body’s endorphins, which researchers believe are released due to the physical exhaustion of the abdominal muscles that comes with true laughter. This “workout” causes the body to release additional endorphins, which naturally block pain in the brain.
Recently I was at the 13th Annual Integrative Oncology Conference where our medical director, Dr. Antonio Jimenez, presented to the audience. Before he began his talk, he asked everyone to first tuck their tongue between their lower jaw and lower lip, look up and start laughing. Within seconds the whole room was having the greatest time, as pain, fear and exhaustion was washed away. That simple activity set the stage for a great talk, but it also gave Dr. Jimenez the opportunity to explain the true power of laughter. (Plus, watching him demonstrate it first was pretty funny to watch!)
Bring More Laughter to Your Life
So this is all good information, but you’re probably wondering how you can use this information to help yourself—because, after all, cancer really isn’t very funny.
The good news is that the value of laughter is getting much more attention than it ever has before. Many hospitals and clinics are starting to offer laughter therapy classes that have shown to be quite beneficial; the laughter yoga movement is gaining traction across the country; and new groups are popping up all the time that offer laughter services to those struggling with an illness.
It’s actually easy to incorporate laughter into your daily routine. Here are some great tips from Laughter Therapy Enterprises:
- Practice laughing 5 minutes each day. Fake it till you make it.
- Share your embarrassing moments with other people.
- Laugh with other people when they laugh.
- Wear a smile. It puts you closer to laughing.
- Seek out entertainment which makes you laugh.
- Buy and listen daily to a tape of laughter, a laugh box, or a laughing toy.
- Buy mindless toys that make you laugh.
- Wear hats that make you laugh.
- Give yourself permission to laugh at anything you need to.
- Do at least one silly, non-conforming thing a day.
Laughter is so contagious, too! It’s hard to keep yourself from laughing when you’re around others who are laughing, so always try to surround yourself with friends and loved ones who are a positive influence on you. And share with them your goal for more laughter in your life! I know they’ll be happy to help because who doesn’t love to laugh?
And remember, those chuckles and guffaws aren’t just fun—they’re powerful. Don’t forget the immortal words of one of our famous funnymen, Mark Twain:
“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”