Dr. Suneel Kamath and Sandy Robis, a patient with pancreatic cancer discuss the important role of laughter in cancer treatment.
When you’re facing a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, humor may be tough to come by.
Instead, feelings of grief, sadness, depression and anxiety become so all-consuming that getting a chuckle from even the most hilarious prank seems like an impossibility. But here’s the thing: It turns out that laughter — whether forced or spontaneous — is powerful medicine.
“Laughter for me, and for a number of my patients, is a sort of triumph over disease,” says Suneel Kamath, M.D., a medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center in Ohio. “It’s evidence that the cancer can’t take the happiness or joy out of your life, that you’re still going to enjoy the things you love.”
No matter how dire your prognosis, there’s good evidence to suggest that a belly-shaking laugh can make you feel better. In fact, humans have been turning to the healing power of laughter for millennia.
Dating back to the 13th century, surgeons used laughter to distract patients from pain. By the 20th century, scientists began exploring the healing benefits of a good chuckle. Today, there’s even “laughter therapy.” As defined by the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH), therapeutic laughter is any intervention that promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful discovery, expression, or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life’s situations.
That can be especially important for cancer patients, says Kamath.
According to AATH, there are three components of humor:
In that sense, laughter addresses the whole person—mind, body, and spirit. Pancreatic cancer survivor Sandy Robis asks, “What could be more healing for a patient?” Robis, whose latest scan showed no evidence of disease, believes humor helped her navigate her journey with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. And according to Kamath, that’s a scientifically sound theory.
Studies suggest that after a spate of laughter, stress hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine, plunge while levels of disease-fighting substances rise. Laughter helps calm frayed nerves, eases pain, and helps you forget, even if only momentarily, about your disease. There’s even evidence to suggest that laughter helps bring people closer together. “It just feels good to laugh and be happy,” Kamath says, “and feeling good promotes healing. There’s no downside.”
Laughter doesn’t have to be spontaneous to “work.” Even simulated vigorous laughter can lift your mood and help reduce stress.
Need some help finding the funny? Put together a humor basket loaded with things that make you laugh—a book of jokes or silly cartoons, funny movies, even a whoopee cushion or noisemaker that makes you chuckle. You can even make it your mission to spread laughter to others. For Robis, sharing laughs not only makes her feel better, but it also buoys everyone around her. “It’s really a 360-degree circle that makes everyone feel better,” she says.
If you’re still struggling to find joy in your everyday life, talk to a healthcare professional. Feelings of sadness and depression are very normal when you’re navigating cancer treatment. “It’s not always something you can snap out of,” Kamath says. “If we know you’re struggling, we can provide the support you need and help you find joy again.”