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.