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Oncolo-Jest: Finding the Comedy in Cancer

What if laughter really is the best medicine?
PUBLISHED July 15, 2016
Khevin Barnes is a Male Breast Cancer survivor, magician and speaker. He is currently writing, composing and producing a comedy stage musical about Male Breast Cancer Awareness. He travels wherever he is invited to speak to (and do a little magic for) men and women about breast cancer.
Cancer is no laughing matter. But as a man with breast cancer, the very notion that a male can contract a “woman’s disease” to me seems like a good example of the incongruous and unpredictable nature of humor. Comedy, it has been shown, relies on elements of surprise and absurdity to be funny.

Comedy surfaces when something is perceived that does not conform to our expectations. Or it contains an unexpected, often sudden shift in perspective led astray by false anticipation.

So the very notion that men have breasts is already fodder for a good punchline. But having said that, a bigger question remains. Can there possibly be anything funny about a life-threatening illness?

In a word, no. Those of us who find the benefits of laughter and humor in our quest for health and healing are certainly not laughing at our disease. We are instead finding the absurdity of life itself to be as humorous as it is mysterious.

And since I began my training as a certified Laughter Yoga Teacher eight years ago, the science behind “laughing for the health of it” has once and for all confirmed that the benefits of laughter are enormous.

Research on the origins of laughter in humans suggests that it all started out with a sort of “panting” in our primate ancestors as a way of inducing a sense of calm in social groups. When we pant, or when we laugh, we are breathing deeply through the belly, enriching our blood with oxygen, lowering our blood pressure and decreasing the amount of cortisol (the stress hormone) in our bodies.

As a cancer survivor, I know that it’s not always easy to laugh when we feel lousy.

But it’s not being happy or joyful that causes us to laugh. Rather, it is the laughter that creates a sense of well-being within. And so a bit of humor, even when it hurts, is not such a bad idea.

With this in mind, I now look for ways to turn my discomfort, stress or fear into something a little lighter, even when things seem impossibly dispiriting. After all, a bend in the road doesn’t mean the end of the road. And whenever a bit of primal panting escalates into a snicker and perhaps even a muted laugh, we have the opportunity to send ourselves down that humorous and hopeful highway to health and healing.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” — Erma Bombeck  
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