Does the image of a roomful of 200 cancer survivors and caregivers doubled over in laughter seem unlikely?
At the Humor, Heart and Hope Symposium held this spring, there were a lot of laughs. The symposium, sponsored by the Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center and the Cancer Support Community of Philadelphia (formerly the Wellness Community), focused on the value of humor and its role in overcoming adversity.
The Positive Power of HumorJoel Goodman, Ed.D, founder of The Humor Project, an organization whose mission is "to make a positive difference in the world by helping people to get more smileage out their lives and jobs," opened the program by talking about the positive power of humor.
Life, he said, throws all of us "pop quizzes," the unexpected events such as a cancer diagnosis or loss of a loved one that brings with them stress and anxiety. Even in the most difficult of times, Goodman says, humor is a "way of bumping us into the here and now," and "an ally against that stress."
Goodman encouraged the audience to find humor in everyday life and to "invite the childlike perspective," the ability see the situation as an eight year old would. Tell jokes, or if you can't remember them, find buttons or bumper stickers that are funny, or just spend five minutes a day looking for the humor that is all around you--and learn to laugh at yourself.
Goodman finished by asking the audience to read the words he wrote, OPPORTUNITY ISNOWHERE. Depending on your perspective, that phrase can be broken down as Opportunity is Nowhere, or...Opportunity is now here.
Laughter is Good MedicineLeslie Gibson, RN, a cancer survivor, spoke about laughter as good medicine, and the body of research that supports the idea that laughter has physical as well as emotional benefits.
She said studies show laughter can improve heart function and reduce blood pressure, and that laughing affects the same part of the brain that responds to chocolate, caffeine, opiates and sex.
Gibson recalled her own childhood in which she was teased by her peers because she was in her words, "short, fat, and wore glasses," and the words of a kind shoe repair man, who urged her to get the kids to laugh with her--not at her. To cope with her own diagnosis of thyroid cancer, she played jokes on her surgeons and her husband to, in her view, humanize the situation.
Gibson concluded her talk by saying, "Laughter doesn't cure, but it does help us find the hope. We need to look for the magic in every day, in everything that is around us. Don't let cancer take away the joy in life."
Balancing Stress with HumorHumor Project Co-Director, Margie Ingram, picked up on that theme in her talk on HUMOResilience and how to tickle stress before it tackles you. She began by urging the audience to "optimize optimism." We all need to seek what she termed, "intentional balance." A diagnosis of cancer threatens that balance by putting us onto a high stress plane for an extended period of time--a situation that triggers both negative physical and emotional responses.
Humor helps us come down from that high stress plane--gives us time to relax and recover.
The final speaker, Michael Pritchard, put into practice what the previous speakers had advocated--he made the audience laugh at him and at themselves. An accomplished professional comedian as well as a writer and social worker, Pritchard began by saying that "Fear is the little dark room where negatives are developed," and quoted Gandhi's maxim that there is "more to life than just increasing the speed."
Sometimes, Pritchard said, we have "to let our souls catch up," and humor provides those opportunities. He brought the audience to laughter with his perfect characterizations ranging from crying infants to teenage boys and girls engaged in phone conversations. He ended by saying that "Humor heals the human spirit as well as the body."
Learn more about The Humor Project.
Learn more about the Cancer Support Community and its many programs for patients and caregivers.