by Rajiv Samant MD, FRCPC, “Health Humor Enthusiast” and Radiation Oncologist, The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre (Ontario, Canada)
Laughter is the best medicine is a commonly quoted phrase but have you ever wondered why? People have known for centuries about the incredible power of humour and laughter to heal. For example, Lord Byron, the English poet born in the 18th century, stated, “Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.” While Madeleine L’Engle, the 20th century American author, said, “A good laugh heals a lot of hurts.” This of course was long before Gelotology, the scientific study of laughter and its effects on the body, became a formally recognized specialty of psychology research.
Finally, though, there is research confirming that humour and laughter can improve the quality of life for patients (1-5). Although the jury is still out on how actual diseases, such as cancer, are affected by humour, there are definite physical and psychological benefits. The ability of humour to elevate mood, decrease stress and anxiety, relax muscles, lower blood pressure, improve communication and enhance relationships has been clearly documented. Dr. Robert Provine, one of the world’s leading authorities on laughter research and author of Laugher, A Scientific Investigation suggests that whether laughter actually improves your health or not, it undeniably improves your quality of life (6).
There is also research specific to cancer that demonstrates the value of humour in the clinical setting (7-9). Humour can help relieve the burden of stress for patients and allow them to cope better with their cancer and treatments, as well as leading to better communication and more trusting relationships with their care providers, whether they be part of the health care team or their friends and family members. There is a growing consensus that we need to be more aware and adaptive to the specific needs of patients. Using humour, in the appropriate settings and for the patients that are open to it, is an example of this individualized and personalized approach to cancer care.
However, most health care professionals, especially physicians, have not fully embraced this concept, perhaps at least partly because education and training in this area have been lacking. Fortunately, we have modern day crusaders like Dr. “Patch” Adams who are stressing the importance of joy, happiness and humour in medical care, and teaching us about how to do this. This has led to a growing popularity of humour therapy programs and their incorporation into the health care setting (2, 5, 10). We need to ensure that the use of humour is also recognized as being applicable to cancer patients. Therefore, the use of humour needs to be advocated, emphasized and promoted among cancer patients as well. But who is going to do this? All of us, in some way, I hope! It is already being done in various cancer centers and organizations (11-13). The creation of humour rooms, visiting clowns and laughter yoga are just a few of the examples of how to do this. Various individuals are also actively promoting the use of humour, and the comedian Tig Nataro has now become the face of cancer comedy (14).
The message that needs to get out to cancer patients, as well as the families, friends, and health care providers, is you should not hesitate to laugh, smile, and joke around if you feel like it. There are numerous sources of humour all around us, including books, movies, shows, videos, and websites as well as family and friends. Just look for anything that catches your fancy. You don’t just want to survive after you have been diagnosed with cancer, you want to thrive. And humour has the power to help you do just that! As a cancer specialist, I can testify to the fact that humour helps not only patients and their families and friends, but also the entire health care team.
If an apple a day can keep the doctor away, then a daily dose of humour probably keeps us all happier and healthier as well. So now is the time to be proactive and allow yourself to laugh, smile, giggle and joke around when the mood hits and be open to the wonderful healing powers of humour!
- Adams, E., & McGuire, F. (1986). Is laughter the best medicine? A study on the effects of humor on perceived pain and affect. Activities, Adaptation and Aging, 8: 157-175.
- Bennett, H.J. (2003). Humor in Medicine. Southern Medical Journal, 96: 1257-1261.
- Berk, R. (2001). The active ingredients in humor: psycho physiological benefits and risks for older adults. Educational Gerontology, 27: 323-339.
- Hassed, C. (2001). How humour keeps you well. Aust Fam Physician: 30, 25-28.
- Strean, W.B. (2009). Laughter prescription. Can Fam Physician, 55: 965-967.
- Provine, R.R. Laughter: A Scientific Evaluation. New York, Viking, 2000.
- Dean, R.A., & Gregory, D.M. (2005). More than trivial: strategies for using humor in palliative care. Cancer Nurs, 28: 292-300
- Johnson, P. (2002)The use of humor and its influences on spirituality and coping in breast cancer survivors. Oncol Nurs Forum, 29: 691-695.
- Roaldsen, B.L., Sørlie, T., & Lorem, G.F. (2015). Cancer survivors’ experiences of humour while navigating through challenging landscapes – a socio-narrative approach. Scand J Caring Sci, 29: 724-733.
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Rajiv is a radiation oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa. He has been caring for cancer patients for over 25 years, and has gained much wisdom from his patients and colleagues during that time. As a teacher, educator and researcher interested in improving how we deal and communicate with patients and their families, he believes patients need to be treated on an individual basis with dignity, respect and kindness as well as with a good dose of humor where circumstances allow for levity to enter a too often serious world.
Many people view cancer as all doom and gloom and think that his job must be very serious, sad and depressing all the time. However, there is much more humor and positivity when dealing with cancer patients than you might think. In fact, since cancer will affect almost half of all North Americans, it might be beneficial to deal with it in a positive way! He has decided to show people that working with cancer patients can be filled with laughter and smiles. This is why he published his book titled “Smiles from the Clinic: A humorous look at cancer” and wants to share with everyone the true, funny stories and experiences that he has witnessed in his day-to-day work. His prescription for everyone, including those with cancer and those without it, is a daily dose of smiles and humor – and you don’t need to go to the pharmacy to get this since it’s all around you!