Can Cancer Be a Laughing Matter?

Embracing humor helps cancer patients and their loved ones battle the disease.

Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt star in the upcoming film 50/50. (Photo: themoviedb.org)

Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

Doctor: Ive got your test results and some bad news. You have cancer and Alzheimers.
Man: Boy, am I lucky! I was afraid I had cancer!

Laughter probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to cancer. But don’t try telling that to Hollywood screenwriter Will Reiser.

“I think that pretty much from the second day after I was diagnosed I was making jokes, because it was the only way I knew how to make everybody feel normal and comfortable with the situation,” said Reiser to NPR. His new film, 50/50, is based on his experience dealing with the disease at 27.

“The last thing I wanted was for everyone to just start treating me differently—which, unfortunately, they did. But that just happens when you go through something like this.”

Although the film doesn’t shy away from standard buddy comedy hijinks—a memorable sequence where Reiser’s best friend (played by real-life amigo Seth Rogen) uses the disease to get them laid comes to mind—Reiser was careful to point out that he wasn’t mocking the disease as much as the way people around him reacted to it.

“You have people just giving you tons and tons of advice about books you should read and foods you should eat,” said Reiser. “People would recommend getting oxygen injections and...going down to the Amazon, drinking a tea from a shaman. You know, like, just all kinds of advice.”

Antics aside, the film does raise an important point about the benefits of humor in patients’ lives. According to the American Cancer Society, humor therapy works, reducing stress and promoting relaxation by lowering blood pressure, improving breathing and increasing muscle function.

The session makes you feel better, Luz Rodriguez, a 57-year-old breast cancer patient who has been going to monthly meetings, told Fox News. I feel healthy when I laugh.

And the benefits of laughter aren’t just reserved to cancer patients. A recent study found humor therapy to be as effective as anti-psychotic drugs in treating agitation in patients with dementia. And according to Norman Cousins, 30-year editor of The Saturday Review, it was the only thing that could spare him from the pain of his debilitating spinal disease.

“I made the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect,” wrote Cousins in his groundbreaking 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness.

Of course, learning to laugh in such trying circumstances is often easier said than done. Here are some helpful hints on ways to get started, courtesy of the nonprofit Help Guide:

  • Laugh at yourself. Share your embarrassing moments. The best way to take ourselves less seriously is talk about times when we took ourselves too seriously.

  • Attempt to laugh at situations rather than bemoan them. Look for the humor in a bad situation, the irony and absurdity of life. This will help improve your mood and the mood of those around you.

  • Surround yourself with reminders to lighten up. Keep a toy on your desk or in your car. Put up a funny poster in your office. Choose a computer screensaver that makes you laugh. Frame photos of you and your family or friends having fun.

  • Keep things in perspective. Many things in life are beyond our control—particularly the behavior of other people. While you might think taking the weight of the world on your shoulders is admirable, in the long run it’s unrealistic, unproductive, unhealthy, and even egotistical.

  • Deal with your stress. Stress is a major impediment to humor and laughter.

  • Pay attention to children and emulate them. They are the experts on playing, taking life lightly, and laughing.

Want to learn more about how you or a loved one can use humor to help with this life-threatening disease? Check out these resources:

Laughter Therapy - From the Cancer Treatment Center of America:

How to Cope With Cancer Through Humor - From the American Society of Clinical Oncology

Rx Laughter - A nonprofit focusing on improving the quality of life for patients through Positive Entertainment research, therapeutic care and education.

Cancer Is Not Funny...But Laughter Is the Best Medicine - A wealth of jokes, quotes, and tongue-in-cheek paraphenalia to help the healing process.

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