A two-time cancer survivor reflects on the adage that laughter is the best medicine.
I like to think of myself as a funny person. I always try to find a way to laugh about something and must admit that I am also a bit of a practical joker at times (as long as no one gets hurt). I even try to keep my sense of humor during difficult times, because it is an excellent way to break the ice in an uncomfortable situation. It helps me make light of my challenging circumstances, and it has helped me heal through considerable obstacles in life.
In the space of one year in 2015 and 2016, it felt like my world was crumbling around me. In the middle of transitioning my dementia-stricken mother into an assisted living facility, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. Just when I thought my situation couldn’t get any worse, my brother died in a very unexpected, tragic way. It took me a long time to heal from the pain of these events and find my joy again. But through the whole ordeal, my sense of humor was my best ally
My experience of laughing through tough times
Fifteen minutes before my double mastectomy, I was in the presurgical cubicle with my family and two closest girlfriends. The mood was tense. The surgeon popped her head into the cubicle to ask if I had any last-minute questions. Everyone present knew how emotional I had really been and expected me to break down in tears. In reality, I had already bombarded my surgeon with every important medical question I could think of. I calmly told the doctor, “I do have one question. To which she responded, “Yes?” I asked: “Can you play Billy Joel in the operating room?”
Everyone in the room burst into fits of laughter. During my pre-surgical visits, the surgeon and I had bonded over our shared love of Billy Joel, and she told me that she liked to play music in the operating room. I figured if I had to lie still for six hours I might as well enjoy some great music. In a moment of great pain, laughter can come as such a godsend. It makes the pain a little easier to bear.
What laughter does for us
Naomi Bagdonas, co-author of Humor, Seriously, says that, “When we laugh with someone, we get this cocktail of hormones that strengthens our emotional bonds in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Studies show it makes us more resilient, creative and resourceful.”
Many have written about this topic and conclude that at time of collective trauma, poking fun at a difficult situation is our best weapon to remind ourselves that we are still human.
We all have different ways to cope with adversity. For me, finding something light and funny in a difficult situation helped relieve some of the anxiety that I was experiencing. Right before my double mastectomy, I asked my husband and children to leave the room so I could be alone with my two close girlfriends. I thought that we were going to hug each other and say, “I love you!” We drew the curtains closed, and then – right in that moment – I took my breasts out for my girlfriends to say goodbye. We were like sisters, so we had seen each other’s breasts before. Each of them jiggled my breasts goodbye. It felt cathartic to, for a few brief seconds, do something silly and funny during this serious time. It made us all laugh.
Humor is a healthy coping mechanism
The comedian Margaret Cho once said, “It’s good to be able to laugh at yourself and your problems. A sense of humor can save you!” Many comedians have been known to use humor as a positive outlet for their mental health issues. Famous examples include Robin Williams, Mitch Hedberg, and Owen Wilson.
To this day, I still make jokes about something that was a truly challenging experience for me. My niece is a big fan of tattoos. Every time I see her, she has a new one. Last time, I told her, “You know, I have two tattoos.” She looked at me, surprised, saying, “Oh really?!” She got a good laugh when I replied, “Yeah but I’m not showing you. They’re my nipples that I got tattooed on after getting reconstructive surgery…”
The science behind laughter
Scott Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, explains that laughter “releases bursts of dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter that signals pleasure and reward, and studies have indicated that it also can improve blood flow, immune response, pain tolerance and might even shorten hospital stays.”
Laughter, in other words, is self-care. It has medicinal value. It’s the best weapon we have as human beings to plow through the curve balls life throws at us. In my case, it helped me to get up when life knocked me down.
Rosie Mankes is a life coach, motivational speaker, and author of Find Your Joy and Run With It, a heartwarming memoir about overcoming her second battle with cancer, the transitioning of her mother into an assisted living facility, and the unexpected loss of her brother, all within one year. Rosie’s recovery from these major challenges inspired her to become a life coach, in order to help people pull through significant adversity and life challenges. Rosie is a resident of New Jersey, where she lives with her husband. She is the mother of two grown sons.