Capitol Hill cancer clinic treats serious illness with laughter

They straggle into a small conference room, some hooked up to rolling chemotherapy poles. Strangers, most of them, all they have in common is cancer and a desire to laugh.

Their host, certified "laugh leader" Michele Caskey, takes out her props: little bottles of bubble stuff and a rubber fish purse filled with comical words ("kumquat," "guppy") on slips of paper. But her job is to get people laughing for no reason at all.

Laugh Club, which meets monthly at the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center, on 16th Avenue East, isn't about jokes. There's nothing particularly funny about Caskey's forced-laugh exercises - one of which is to literally produce a series of hee-hees, ha-has and ho-hos - but the body doesn't know the difference.

Faked or genuine, laughter gets the blood pumping, the lungs breathing more deeply and the brain synapses firing. It dampens stress hormones, which also feed tumors as it juices the immune system.

It even works the abdominal muscles, Caskey points out, and is a lot more fun than doing crunches at the gym. In short, laughter really is good medicine, which is why the Cancer Center and other sites have started hosting Laugh Clubs or Laugh Yoga, as it is also known.

"Laughter actually aids healing," says Robin Adler, director of mind-body medicine at the Capitol Hill clinic, the first center in the region to have medical oncologists working side by side with naturopaths, acupuncturists and other complementary-care providers.

"I believe that if you're just treating somebody physically, you're not treating them," Adler says. "When you're activating your immune system (with laughter), you're healing yourself with your mind."

The laughter movement started with Dr. Madan Kataria in India in 1995 and has since spread to more than 2,000 clubs around the world. In the United States, a group called World Laughter Tour provides trained and certified laughter leaders for therapeutic sessions in silliness.

In Caskey's company, none of the usual stigmas apply. Laughing out loud at nothing is not only okay, it's encouraged. The aim of the class is to teach participants to summon up laughter out of thin air. Twenty minutes a day is recommended, though not necessarily in one chunk.

"I laugh at stop lights," Caskey says. "The more you're laughing at things, the more things there are to laugh at."

That's particularly good for people battling sickness or disease.

"A person's resiliency is directly related to how quickly they're amused or amazed," she notes.

Marilyn Brandenburg, a Bainbridge Island resident and cancer patient who attended a recent Laugh Club session, doesn't need to be told that giggling is good for her. A self-described "lifelong devotee" of comedy, she's gone to humor retreats and conferences.

"I think it's find humor in everyday life," she said.

The Laughter Club meets monthly at the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center at 122 16th Ave. E. The sessions are free and open to cancer patients and their families. You do not have to be receiving treatment at SCTWC to attend.

The next meeting takes place on Tuesday, April 5, at 2 p.m. For more information, call Robin Adler at 292-2277.

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