Together with Sharon Bray – teacher and author of two books on writing and health – CKN welcomes you to our new Writing Series where Sharon helps readers tap into the healing power of writing during difficult times. As Sharon puts it, “Your stories matter. You are your stories. Our stories shape us and act as the lens through which we see the world. It’s through story that we make sense of our lives, reclaim our voices, and learn our words can touch others’ hearts.” Follow along with this bi-monthly series with Sharon and please send us your stories….they matter to us.
…when you are raised with the gift of laughter, as I was, it can’t stay suppressed forever. It’s too powerful. Thank goodness for that. I eventually could see bits of “ha-ha” in my own life. Certainly not in the cancer, but in the mind-blowing circumstances that suddenly consumed my life. And laughing at parts of those experiences made me feel a little more alive.
The funniest part of it all was that the more I allowed myself to laugh, the more therapeutic my tears became.
(Jim Higley, “Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer,” Coping with Cancer Magazine, March/April 2012)
To think about humor and laughter in the midst of cancer treatment seems, at first, to be counterintuitive, almost an affront. But it’s not. In the writing groups I’ve led for cancer patients and survivors over the years, laughter is as much a part of the responses to shared stories as the tears, anger and frustration. Cancer or not, we all need a little laughter in our lives, whether we’re dealing with the ups and downs of treatment, a stressful and overly busy life, or simply sharing time and conversation with one another. We need to laugh just as sometimes, we need to cry.
During the summer of 2013, I was a speaker at an Omega Institute program titled “Living Well with Cancer.” Acknowledging that for some, cancer had become a chronic disease, “the program focused on optimizing resiliency at every life stage,” and included presentations and workshops on meditation, expressive writing, yoga and mindfulness walking in addition to the keynote address by Dr. Jeremy Geffen, MD and oncologist, author of The Seven Levels of Healing. The final evening of the weekend event, however, took a lighter tone as former CURE Magazine editor Kathy LaTour and CEO of Omega Institute Skip Backus entertained the group with humorous accounts of their cancer journeys. There was much loud and infectious laughter from all the people in the room. Laughing, it turned out, was just as much about resiliency during cancer as all the other topics discussed.
Why laughter in the midst of the cancer journey? Laughter has beneficial effects on our health and well-being. Do you recall the remarkable story of writer and editor, Norman Cousins, author of Anatomy of an Illness (1979)? Diagnosed in 1964 with ankylosing spondylitis, a rare disease of the connective tissues, his doctor told him he had a 1 in 500 chance of survival and should ”get his affairs in order.”
Cousins refused to accept his death sentence, firing his doctor and finding another who agreed to partner with him in his treatment and recovery. He began research on his disease, looking for a possible cure. As part of his experimental treatment, he booked himself into a hotel room and daily, watched old comic films like those of the Marx Brothers and “Candid Camera” television shows. The steady diet of comedy made him laugh, and sometimes laugh so hard that his stomach hurt. Laughter was a critical aspect of his treatment. Cousins ultimately recovered and lived another twenty-six years.
What does laughter do for us, whether combating a disease or simply navigating through our busy, stressful lives? Laughing breaks the ice; relaxes people, and it builds community. We learn not to take ourselves quite so seriously. Even in the midst of something as soul shattering as a cancer diagnosis, we can still find things that make us smile. When we laugh, our outlook is brightened, and it has positive effects on our health. Research has shown that laughter relieves stress and pain, boosts the immune system and reduces blood pressure. Not only does it stimulate our minds, it’s a good workout! Ten to fifteen minutes of laughing burns about 50 calories.
During the latter half of my expressive writing workshops, I frequently invite participants to put cancer aside for a short time and write about a humorous event in their lives, describing it as completely as they can. As everyone takes a turn reading aloud, there are giggles and guffaws as the humorous mishaps are recounted. Sometimes there are even tears as stories are shared, but out of laughter, not sadness. We all leave the session with smiles on our faces–good medicine for all of us.
The human race has only one really effective weapon and that’s laughter. The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place. –Mark Twain
Smiling and laughter are contagious. Whether during cancer treatment or simply living in a world constantly dominated by crises, hardship and struggle, it’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about.
- Take a break from writing about the cancer experience, the more serious topics of life. Instead, dig back into your memories.
- Write about a time, describing in as much detail as you can, a time something made you laugh, perhaps hard enough to make tears run down your cheeks, a humorous event that makes you smile, even as you begin to recall the memory of it.
- Read it and perhaps share your story with a friend or family member. Let a little “ha, ha” brighten your day.
Let us hear from you! CKN will select and publish your responses to the suggested writing prompts from Sharon. Send them to Karen Irwin. 500 word limit.
Sharon Bray, Ed.D., is the author of two books on writing and health: A Healing Journey: Writing Together through Breast Cancer and When Words Heal: Writing Through Cancer. Her blog site, www.writingthroughcancer.com, features weekly reflective essays and writing prompts for anyone writing out of illness, pain or life struggle. She leads a number of expressive writing workshops for cancer survivors and teaches creative nonfiction and transformational writing for UCLA extension Writers’ Program. She earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto.