A cancer diagnosis is not usually associated with laughter, and believe you me it was far from my initial response. Who could laugh at a bowel cancer diagnosis at 42 – or any age really?
But as a laughter yoga facilitator and lecturer in health promotion, from the moment I was first diagnosed I knew somehow laughter would be integral to my healing and recovery.
As a seasoned laughter-yogi perhaps this should have come naturally. But the first laughter session I had after diagnosis, a corporate lingerie party, felt undeniably forced. It had been too late to cancel, so, like being pushed into a room before the door is rudely shut behind your back, I was trapped.
Thirty or so chatty and excitable ladies filled the room. Their energy was palpable while mine sat quietly in the corner, too shy to introduce herself. How could I muster the strength and state of mind to run a laughter session when in a few days I was scheduled for major surgery – a full bowel resection together with a temporary ileostomy? All I wanted was to hide from the public and cry.
Almost like an out of body experience, captive audience in hand, I outlined the social, emotional and physical health benefits of laughter. I even managed to grind out my elevator pitch: the more we choose to smile and laugh, the better worn those neural pathways become so we actually rewire the brain to a complete and constant state of calm, joy and awareness. Then, as I led the group in the laughter session comprising laughter exercises, deep breathing and clapping, I noted how in no time my laughter became real, as did theirs.
After the session I asked people to share how they felt and was delighted to hear that, like me, they felt happier, lighter, brighter and less anxious and stressed. My circulation had rebooted as warm blood effortlessly flowed to my extremities and I was decidedly more enlivened. For the first time since diagnosis I felt an excitement for life, for really living. I now felt significantly more prepared for the whopping surgery that awaited me.
A few days later, I went into hospital. But as surgeons attended to my physical condition, I made a promise to take charge of my healing. Even when circumstances may have appeared less than perfect, laughter, mindfulness and other positive psychology techniques helped align my mind and body to a state where optimal healing could occur. What we place our attention on grows. Stress breeds stress. But a conscious level of awareness to something positive, such as a smile, casts some light even in the darkest of moments.
During my recovery increasingly I recognised laughter to be a form of mindfulness: an anchor to the present moment. When you’re laughing, you’re laughing. It’s very difficult to feel negative emotion. This is really important in terms of healing as optimal healing occurs when less stress and tension reside in the body.
LISTEN: Sally Obermeder talks to Mia Freedman about her cancer diagnosis on No Filter (post continues after audio...)
It wasn’t just the physical act of laughter, it was about adopting a laughter wellness mindset to promote whole of body wellness, and assist in transforming my mental landscape from bleak to brighter.
On most days, even if it was the last thing I felt like doing, I embedded a smiling mindfulness practice. I knew doing so would change my biochemistry. With full attention to my smile, I breathed it in and then as I exhaled, shared it around my body, until it was as if every cell, every tissue, every muscle, every fibre of my body was smiling back at me. It was such a beautiful thing to do, to embody a smile and the magical feelings it brings: love, inner peace and pure joy.
I spent time journaling, which provided a resting place for my mind-chatter, the profound (and not so profound) thoughts, and a release for any undesired and negative emotions that hibernated within. In doing so it also helped re-frame some of the more painful moments and wherever possible infusing them with a little joy, which I knew would help change the way my mind remembered particular events.
I reevaluated my friendship circle, subtly carving out people who didn’t buoy my mood or lift my spirits. I placed a moratorium on news, instead choosing comedy shows on TV. I spent time thinking about the language we use: words harm, words heal, becoming more mindful about sayings such as “chocolate to die for” – surely it should be “chocolate to live for!” I even changed how I referred to my bowel reversal, choosing instead to call it a bowel re connection, as instinctively this felt so much more positive.
Each night on the cusp of sleep I recounted the many little things that went well in my day, becoming consciously grateful. Micro-moments of joy, like sharing a cup of tea with a good friend, the sun streaming down my back, or gazing out onto a blue sky on a sunny winter’s day. Spending time acknowledging the joy automatically cast out the stress-filled thoughts. I became a mindful breathing devotee, breathing in newness and healing whilst letting go of stale air and pain-filled memories.
I am now appreciative for what at times was undeniably a gruelling journey. I was stripped back to raw, yet rebuilt myself on principles that previously I had merely preached. This year of healing set me up for a life of joy, love and laughter, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Ros Ben-Moshe is a laughter therapist and founder of Laugh Life wellbeing programs. Over the years she has empowered thousands of people to connect to their own mindfulness, and to become aware that even in the darkest times there is always light.