Study Shows Laughter Can Minimize Pain in Cancer Patients

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Remember sitting in the dentist’s office when you were a kid, absentmindedly thumbing through a worn copy of Reader’s Digest as you apprehensively awaited your turn in the chair? If you were like me, you turned to the short, funny sections first: Humor in Uniform; In These United States; All in a Day’s Work; and, of course, Laughter, the Best Medicine. Even then, I instinctively wanted to laugh when I was scared.

    Now, hospitals around the country are increasingly treating cancer patients with a dose of humor, as well as chemo and radiation.

    Some facilities run their own home-grown programs, such as “Strength Through Laughter” at the Montefiore Einstein Cancer Center at Montefiore Hospital in New York. There, cancer patients and survivors meet monthly to tell jokes, dress in silly costumes, and watch funny movies. Meanwhile, World Laughter Tour, run by psychologist Steve Wilson, will be training personnel at two dozen hospitals around the country to lead “laughter therapy” sessions.

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    The nonprofit Rx Laughter, founded 10 years ago by veteran ABC and CBS programming executive Sherry Hilber, focuses on managing patient pain and improving emotional health through funny films and TV clips. In two large patient studies, it was shown that patients who watched Rx Laughter’s videos tolerated painful procedures more readily. And that cancer patients experienced less pain, and slept better, after laughing their way through favorite funny films.

    This is actually not news to those of us who remember Norman Cousins, editor of the now-defunct Saturday Review, whose 1979 book Anatomy of an Illness detailed his approach to a crippling and potentially fatal illness he’d experienced 15 years earlier. Cousins checked out of the hospital and basically cured himself with laughter, diet, and vitamin C. His book was one of the first examining what we now call the mind-body connection, the belief that we can use our minds to affect the course of many of our physical challenges.

    Medical experts, including the American Cancer Society, say that laughter is healthy because it helps muscles function better, lowers blood pressure, and improves breathing. So physically, laughter is a plus.

    And think about it; how do you feel when you’ve been laughing? Relaxed, right? Less stressed. Happy. It’s simply impossible to hold onto tension when you’re laughing. Since tension and stress lower the effectiveness of the immune system, it makes sense that a happier person is a healthier person—which studies have indeed shown.

    It’s tempting, when going through cancer treatment, to assume a gloomy outlook. After all, you’re facing a life-threatening illness. Not only that, the treatment can be painful and miserable. Caretakers seem to avoid any emotions that might be construed as “too happy;” a loved one with cancer is, after all, a sad event.

    But what if you choose not to see cancer as inherently scary and awful? Maybe you don’t have to whisper and sigh and wear, at best, a faint smile.

  • There’s not much you can control during the cancer experience, but your attitude is completely your own. You can choose to be miserable. Or you can choose to see whatever humor or light there is in the situation, and milk it for all its worth.

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    I remember, during radiation, lying on the table smiling to myself as I envisioned the controls the radiology techs might be wielding behind their lead door: High; Low; Defrost; Baked Potato. Or thinking about chemo greeting cards: “Having a bad hair day? Or was that a no hair day?” Not a real gut-buster in retrospect, but I gave myself a good chuckle at the time.

    And as it turned out, I had a phenomenal radiation experience. No burns, no fatigue, no side effects at all. Was it pure dumb luck? Or did those silly thoughts help my body counteract the negative effects of the radiation pouring into me each day?

    I think it was the silly thoughts. And now, whenever cancer’s lasting effects start to weigh on me, I don’t have a pity party. I pull out my Moonstruck DVD, and have a good, long laugh.

Published On: November 30, 2008