A TGB READER STORY: Furry Manipulation
Cancer, Old Age or Something New?

Is Laughter the Best Medicine?

EDITORIAL NOTE: A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Soergel, who is is studying aging and workforce issues as part of a 10-month fellowship at The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, interviewed me about retirement and a whole bunch of other topics. We had a lively time together, the story has now been published and you can read it here.

"Andy tells me that when he's got some time, he pull together some of the other things we talked about for another story. I'll let you know when that is published.

* * *

Last week, my oncologist told me that I look much better, much healthier than when he canceled my chemotherapy two months ago. I was surprised; I hadn't realized I didn't look well.

He also said that I had hardly laughed at all when we met that day. Laughed? I asked. He said I'm big laugher - about my cancer, about all kinds of things - and he particularly appreciates my sarcasm.

He went on to tell me that he believes there is a connection medical science doesn't yet know much about or understand between good humor and health.

There has been some research about this possible connection which Washington Post reporter Marlene Cimons summarizes:

”Laughter stimulates the body’s organs by increasing oxygen intake to the heart, lungs and muscles, and stimulates the brain to release more endorphins, according to the Mayo Clinic,” [she writes].

“It also helps people handle stress by easing tension, relaxing the muscles and lowering blood pressure. It relieves pain, and improves mood. Laughter also strengthens the immune system.

“'When we laugh, it decreases the level of the evil stress hormone cortisol,' [professor of medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, Edward] Creagan says.

“'When we are stressed, it goes high and this interferes with the parts of the brain that regulate emotions. When that happens, the immune system deteriorates and becomes washed in a sea of inflammation, which is a factor in heart disease, cancer and dementia. Cortisol interferes with the body’s immune system, putting us at risk for these three groups of diseases.'

“For sick people,” writes Cimone, “laughter can distract from pain and provide them with a sense of control when they otherwise might feel powerless, experts say. Moreover, it’s often the patients themselves who crack the jokes.

“'Some of the funniest patients I have ever met were those dying of cancer or struggling with alcoholism,'” Creagan says.”

Sven Svebakis, professor emeritus at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, has studied the health impact of humor for more than 50 years. Referencing a large study of more than 53,000 participants he and colleagues conducted, Svebakis told WaPo's Cimons,

”Humor also seems to stimulate memories and improve mental acuity in the elderly, especially among those with dementia.

“The therapeutic benefits of 'clown therapy' for hospitalized pediatric patients is well-established, but elder clowns are now also helping seniors in residential settings, says Bernie Warren, professor emeritus in dramatic arts at the University of Windsor and founder of Fools for Health, a Canadian clown-doctor program...

“He has seen Alzheimer’s patients engage with clowns 'and become lucid and aware', Warren says. 'There’s anecdotal evidence that suggests clowns help greatly with memory, language and communication and awareness of self in the present.'”

Personally, I find clowns to be more creepy than funny but if it helps others, that's a good thing.

All of this makes sense to me and even if it eventually proves not to help much, laughing always feels good. So I'll just go on making (mostly) mordant jokes about my predicament and be happy to have some of my doctors laughing along with me – while sometimes making the jokes themselves:

When I saw my primary care physician for the first time soon after I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago, he flipped through a printout of my recent test results and said:

“You're very healthy, Ronni, except for the cancer.”

That was my first cancer joke and I've been finding a lot more to laugh at about cancer ever since.


“You're very healthy, Ronni, except for the cancer.” That would make anyone laugh!

I wish I could laugh as often and as long as I did when I was a kid. But I do agree it's good for you or at least a good laugh makes you feel great for hours afterward. Elevates your allover mood.

And I agree, clowns are creepy. Keep them away from me when I get too old to tell them myself to "bug off!"

I don't find clowns creepy; but, they do annoy the heck out of me. Laugh? There are few people who really make me laugh, but I count smiles as a good thing and I have a lot of them.

My beloved mother-in-law was in a constant state of laughter as her Alzheimer's progressed. I never knew if it was a symptom of her disease or whether it was helpful to her state of being. She took part in a university's Alzheimer's study, in St Louis, in the 1980s; but, I've not seen any report on the study and don't know enough about it to find any reports at this late date. Since the university has those records, my husband has let them know of his willingness to participate in any studies that might be ongoing, now. So far, they've not accepted the offer and, to me, the trips (7-hour drive) to participate might be wearing for us both, after a while. (They want the spouse to come with the test subject.)

HA! A doctor told me the same thing a couple of years ago. Keep on keeping on, Ronni.

I did a section on Laughter for a class I developed and taught called Practicing Wellness back in early 2000s. One of my demos and exercises was I’d just start laughing in front of the group, no jokes, nothing but laughing. One by one ppl joined in and we couldn’t stop. Laughing so hard the tears ran. So much fun! 😆😂🤣😂😆

Thrilled you’re doing so well Ronni!

Well, as a former circus clown, I can say that creepiness depends on the clown. The trend in clowning is less makeup and more attention to character.

I like your backup info a lot. I must have known this somehow cause when I began wallowing in self pity a few days ago I wrote to some friends asking them to send me something funny. It really helped. But also hearing from them meant a lot too. Human relationships are really important in feeling better also: knowing that we care about each other.

Oh yes! I'm glad you have docs who have funny bones! I'm glad you yourself are possessed of 100% healthy, well functioning funny bones! It feels so good to laugh, sure it's good for us. And we can laugh in our own home, all by ourselves too, not waiting for someone else to laugh with, though that is very delicious. And a friend who will laugh themselves silly 'til the tears run is a blessing.

This thread reminds me of Norman Cousins, who claimed he beat a serious illness by laughing--he wrote about it in a book called "Anatomy of an Illness." As I recall he watched Marx Brothers movies as a way to get himself laughing.

This got me thinking about my video consumption. My husband and I tend to like murder mysteries, which seem to get grimmer and grimmer as time goes on. Compare Agatha Christie with Tara French (a favorite current author), for example. I need to watch more comedies, but the problem is, so many modern comedies strike me as stupid rather than funny. Decent romantic comedies are especially hard to find.

That said, I recently went to see "Yesterday" at the theater, and I loved it, despite its middling reviews. True, the plot didn't make a lot of sense and it wasn't terribly original, but it put a smile on my face, and that felt really good.

For a good laugh, watch “The Derry Girls” on Netflix. Be sure to use Closed Caption as they speak so fast and combined with the accents, it’s hard to catch. Hilarious.

Thinking of you.

Also, Stephen Fry on QI (Quite Interesting), Eddie Izzard, Rich Hall - in fact any comedy you can find that makes you split your sides - metaphorically speaking!

A cable channel in my area runs 2 Mary Tyler Moore reruns every afternoon. Every girl I knew at a certain point in her life wanted to be Mary in the newsroom. I was no exception.
Sure, the episodes are dated but they still make me laugh right out loud at least once or twice during most episodes. I hadn't seen any of them in say....20 years or more. Enjoying them immensely.
So much better (for my mental health) than cable news commentators shouting at you all afternoon.

This kind of conversation always reminds me of all the people who have supported the idea that humor can help the body heal.

Among them is Hunter Doherty "Patch" Adams (born May 28, 1945) is an American physician, comedian, social activist, clown, and author. He founded the Gesundheit! Institute in 1971. Each year he organizes a group of volunteers from around the world to travel to various countries and they dress as clowns in an effort to bring humor to orphans, patients, and other people.
The 1998 film Patch Adams starring Robin Williams was based on Adams' life and views on medicine.

Reminds me of a recent comment I said to my doctor after we went over all of my latest test ... 'I'm in great shape for the age I'm in!" She heartely agreed and we both laughed.

When I was in the ICU, October, after a huge surgery, a friend sent me the Bob 'n Ray piece about Komodo dragons. I made my offspring listen when they came to visit, and then my nurse listened, and pretty soon, we were all chortling and telling blackly humorous stories. It was actually fun, with me sprouting tubes and beeping machines. I wonder if this got me out of there sooner than I might have expected!

Many of your posts make me ponder. I realize that there is a huge difference between the US, French and British cultures, in so many ways. Humor and irony is one. I heard that the US humor is in the first degree, French and British in the 2nd degree. They are very different and super difficult to translate. Very successful US comic movies were not shown in France and in the reverse, French and British ones not shown here because they would have tanked. In France, in my family, we laugh and joke a lot, but in my US husband’s family, not much, or not the same. I read that a very expensive British marketing campaign failed completely in the US because the audience here did not quite get the ironic presentation, and believed it was true. The French like mockery, double entendre, bons mots, and the British humor is also pretty tongue-in-cheek, but the US is different (I did not say bad or better, just very different.) Our teasing humor, thought as totally innocent in France and the UK is taken literally and believed as not politically correct here. But as you say, laughing is good for our state of mind, and health, so I watch comic French and UK shows on youtube!

Bravo, a fantastic read...so appreciate your chronicles and hope you are able to turn all this (your blogs) into a book to guide so many who will follow....thx for your intelligence and good spirit!

First thing I thought of reading today's blog was the Cousins book, mentioned above by Nancy. I was also interested in the doc's pairing of deadly cancer and alcoholism. I've been sober for almost a half-century now, and it is absolutely true that 12-step meetings frequently erupt with laughter.

Sober drunks know we're in the lifeboat. I once was asked to give a talk on my own alcoholism to a largeish group of doctors and other health-care professionals. I told them all my funniest, most bizarre stories, guaranteed to bring down the house at a meeting of sober alcoholics, but with this group I wasn't getting laughs! Uh-oh, I thought, but soldiered on. Afterward I got a warm round of applause, and several people came up and congratulated me (I don't take credit for my recovery). All of them looked very serious. One of them actually wrung my hand and said, "I think you're very brave to carry on.

Humor is at the very top of my list of necessities.

I have written about this before but will repeat it for this timely topic. My mother became a Christian Scientist when I was middle school age and I bitterly resented it. Being pragmatic by nature I thought it was superstition to believe that positive thinking was responsible for the seemingly miraculous cures of illness or accidents and resisted that idea with every fiber of my being. Nonetheless, several inexplicable cures forced me to question the possibility that there might be something to it.

I read Norman Cousins cancer cure and heard of other cures associated with using laughter, faith, or religion as the way to achieve a miracle. This bothered me because I didn't want to have my pragmatic belief shaken.

I actually witnessed my mother's severely cut arm healing with no medical intervention and with leaving no scars. She used a "practitioner" when she was wounded and did the same when my little brother fell on a pointed wooden sucker stick gouging a hole in the back of his mouth.

I finally came to the same conclusion as the doctor who believes we have a healing power in our brain that we haven't learned how to use. Perhaps a chemical such as Serotonin is responsible. They are learning more all the time about the brain and I find it fascinating.

Love this place where our "Top Chick" rolls out a question or themed narrative and we busy, noisy ducklings get in line and expand on that with our own experiences, ideas, stories, laughter, tears and anything else pertaining, or not!

Had to mention that thought as it edged out other thoughts just now. Vagabonde, thanks for the explanation of French humor, and Darlene, your relation of Christian Science practices in your family encourages me to follow up on this as I'm convinced there's a whole lot more going on within our bodies/brains (and outside of them) of which effects we're minimally aware.

Simone's and Darlene's comments prompt me to mention a book I found interesting and thought provoking in a variety of ways.

As a retired nurse, books with case histories and results hold my interest the best. The MD writing it also has an engaging writing style.

"The Brain That Changes Itself", by Norman Doidge MD 2007.

Coming late to this post tonight, I was not surprised that others had beat me to bringing up Norman Cousins and his breakthrough work reported in Anatomy of an Illness. It made sense to me when I first read about it nearly 40 years ago, and I believe that following his advice has helped my husband and I immensely over the years.

I recall, too, reading decades ago in Reader's Digests we used in middle school, the section called "Laughter is the Best Medicine," and being intrigued by the concept. All the explanations of physical responses reported to be connected with laughter are sound, but I believe that the reduction of cortisol is the most beneficial. Even when I wasn't a huge fan of Reader's Digest, I still sought out that humor section.

My second bout of cancer , 4 years after first, sent me for a month of chemo once a week but daily full abdominal radiation , 25 treatments, followed by 11 more spot radiation’s! Every day I went in I had to look at my photo and agree it was me, got to be a joke with my therapists and made us all laugh! What really kept me having “fun” was socks! I have way more pair than I should, lots of’cats funny sayings, sloth sock, rabbits, holiday etc.Every day when I had to stretch out on my mold, there were the socks! In time, even the receptionists wanted to see my socks! They made people happy and that cheered me up, even at my sickest, there were socks, laughs and silliness! My last session my favorite therapist wore cat sold and a shirt with cats on motorcycles in my honor! I gave all those who kept me sane a pair of silly socks! 2 years later when I go past the radiation department someone always wants to see my socks! I try not to disappoint!!When I go for my oncologist visit the socks are still making smiles! Who knew they would become my cancer “survival tool”! Humor , a positive attitude, friends, funny cartoons , emails kept me going! Oh, and cat videos as well!

Really appreciate the information you’re sharing here about the significance humor can have with supporting ongoing scientific studies.

I’ve long been a proponent of humor both personally and professionally as beneficial. Thinking of patients with whom I’ve served with speech, language, swallowing, cognitive issues, all sorts of neurological matters and diseases, hearing and other medical problems, those who were inclined to incorporate humor into coping with their issues — much as you describe doing — seemed generally to experience a better quality of life. As a health care provider tensions associated with genuine caring and concern for those with whom I’m involved can be relieved with humor for me sometimes but always important to follow the lead of the patient.

I’ve sometimes joked that humor has helped me keep my sanity — also I find it true in the crazy times we’re living in now.

Well, even if it didn’t help our health, it sure feels good to laugh. But I, too, believe there’s something to it. Certainly, for me, it helps alleviate stress. My husband and I have long had “Go For The Joke” as our personal philosophy. We are always looking for the humor in even the most difficult situations. Admittedly some people (our daughter - ha!) find our refusal to take everything seriously annoying.

A week or so ago we went to see “Ishtar” — which famously bombed when it opened — at the Film Forum. A gentleman who must have been nearing ninety sat right next to me. At first I thought : Geez, there are plenty of empty seats in the theater, why does he need to sit right next to me? But I’m so glad he did. We had a delightful conversation, and then the movie started. It was so terrible, it was rather hilarious. The crowd was into it — nothing like seeing a movie with a New York audience who’s into it — and the barking laughter of the gentleman next to me set me off every time. I’m going to seek more opportunities to laugh. In the meantime, I’ll re-watch Frasier.

I live in an assisted living facility surrounded by 200 seniors, none of whom I would consider healthy. Except for a very few, they are the funniest people I have ever met. They laugh at their disabilities, their illnesses and have no problem making fun of their own senior "peculiarities." While I can't say humor is the best medicine, for some, it's the only defense mechanism they have left.

I've got several inherited disorders, two of which cause more or less constant pain and joints which dislocate on a whim (or my whim when I was younger). I've freaked out a few doctors by dislocating my hips and flipping my feet around so my toes faced backward. But now that I'm old all these joint partial dislocations and dislocations cause unending pain. You could sit around and cry, it's your choice, but laughing beats crying any day. I love watching old TV shows like Carol Burnett, Are You Being Served, Monty Python, Father Ted, and the British women's singing group "Fascinating Aida" who just crack me up.

There's actually a form of yoga called "Laughter Yoga", started by a physician, Dr. Madan Kataria. People get together and simply spontaneously laugh for 20-30 minutes. There are over 16,000 groups in countries all over the world but you don't need a group to do it. I won't post a link, just google it.

My husband and I both have a crazy, wacky sense of humour, and find the silliest things funny. Our adult sons are sober as judges, and tend to look at us as though we are naughty children. Which we find wildly funny. And then we're off again...

Yes, they say laughter lowers blood presure, reduces stress hormone levels, improves cardiac health, activate immune system cells and triggers the release of endorphines. So you can definitely say that laughing is good for your health.

Thanks, Ronni, for sharing the link to the AP story about being prepared for retirement. I had a conversation with my hairdresser yesterday about this very thing. She has recently moved her salon into her inlaws' home and is paying them a stipend to help with their retirement. I assumed the inlaws to be in their 70s, at least, as I have seen them and they appear elderly. They owned a bakery and sold it a couple of years ago, tired of working 18 hour days.

Turns out, the inlaws are in their 60s, the mil maybe younger than me. Since retiring, their health is deteriorating, and they have run through the money from the sale of the bakery. From what I was told, and able to fill in, their income is only their social security now.

Although still young, I have tried to help my hairdresser understand the importance of saving her money now so as to be able to have a nice retirement in 20 or so years.

Hope you are feeling better and can return to writing and more laughter this next week.

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