“I’ve got one,” said Mary Ann Simon, piping up from the back of the room where about 40 people had gathered for an evening of jokes and laughter in Redondo Beach.
“How many Teamsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?,” she asked.
The question was greeted with puzzled looks and silence, broken by a few I-don’t-knows.
“Seven,” Simon said, adding menacingly: “Is that a problem?”
Not content with one light bulb joke, Simon told another, this one about former President Ronald Reagan. “How many Reagan Cabinet members does it take to screw in a light bulb?,” she asked. “None. They like to keep Ronnie in the dark.”
Simon’s jokes got a lot of laughs, and so did many others--about undertakers, the Pope, President Bush and even proctological surgery--told over the course of two hours.
That wouldn’t have been unusual at a party or a comedy club. But the joke tellers, gathered at the Wellness Community South Bay Cities, were people with cancer.
“Cancer is no laughing matter, but I can laugh at it,” said Simon, a Manhattan Beach resident who has undergone a mastectomy and chemotherapy for breast cancer.
That’s exactly what Simon and other cancer patients are doing as growing numbers of doctors and therapists discover that joking and laughing can take some of the horror out of cancer.
“Who has a greater need to stop and laugh than people who face on a daily basis a struggle with a serious illness like cancer?” asks Dr. Malin Dollinger, a Torrance Memorial Hospital oncologist who also is on the Wellness Community’s professional advisory board. He said humor releases the anxiety, tension, fear and anger that accompany a life-threatening illness.
“It does not even matter if the cancer is active, arrested or cured. The worry and the fear are always there and the need for release is always important,” he said.
The link between attitude and illness is part of a relatively new scientific investigation called psychoneuroimmunology, which focuses on interaction between the brain or “mind” and the immune system.
Doctors are cautious about claiming that positive thinking, including humor, have specific effects on the immune system, although Dollinger said there are studies that seem to point in that direction.
However, Dr. Lowell H. Greenberg, a Torrance oncologist who also is on the Wellness advisory board, said: “There is no objective evidence that laughter or any other type of positive thinking affect the immune system.”
At the same time, he said, there is “nothing wrong” with positive thinking. “It makes their (cancer patients) lives more meaningful,” he said. “They’re more apt to . . . eat properly, keep up exercise and not get depressed. People who retreat, stop eating and get depressed don’t do as well.”
Wellness Community evenings of “fun and laughter,” as the joke sessions are called, are held every two or three months for cancer patients and their families. Everyone is encouraged to bring a few jokes to tell.
“It’s part of our whole positive support concept to improve the quality of life,” said Marian Mohr, executive director of the Wellness center, which offers support programs for cancer patients. The center is patterned after one that was opened in Santa Monica in 1982 by retired attorney Harold H. Benjamin.
Saying she can’t see how anyone can handle cancer without a sense of humor, Simon said she handled the stress of her breast surgery and reconstruction last year by joking about it.
“When I was being reconstructed, I was told there would be fluid and I would have to come in and have it drained,” she recalled. “Then I would go to the plastic surgeon to be pumped up. I asked if I was going to a doctor’s office or to a service station.”
Marilyn Ericastilla of Hawthorne, another cancer patient who laughed her way through joke night, said she has had ovarian cancer for three years and has undergone three operations and much chemotherapy.
But she calls herself one of the luckier people with cancer because she has been free of pain, is able to work and has a family that “never lets me take it too seriously.”
Not even, she said, when her hair started falling out last year. “That was more traumatic to me than having cancer,” she said. “I finally shaved my head and my family started rubbing it for luck, making a big joke out of something that was really traumatic. They laughed at me and with me and it was a real help.”
Center director Mohr, whose own cancer first introduced her to the Wellness Community as a patient in Santa Monica, battled the disease for three years. “It was a rough period for me and I needed to relax,” she said. In the hospital, she started telling jokes. “That put me in touch with the power of humor in relaxing and helping me get through it.”
When she went in for breast reconstruction in 1983 after a double mastectomy, Mohr recalled, she concealed a note beneath her hospital gown for her doctor to find when he started surgery. It said, “Good morning,” and offered good luck for a successful operation “so I would be ready for my debut at the local topless bar.”
She said her husband told her that “the physician had a smile on his face and the whole room was laughing.”
Professional humorist Bob Hunter, a guest speaker at joke night, said that when you make someone laugh by telling them a joke, “you give them a gift.” Among other things, he said, laughter reduces aggressiveness, increases tolerance, improves communication and “burns more calories than coughing, crying or sex.”
Hunter said one of the greatest problems people have in telling jokes is believing that they’re no good at it. To overcome that attitude, he said, “Just tell yourself over and over, ‘I am a good joke teller’,” Hunter said.
Before a willing audience like the people at Wellness, even a blown joke gets laughs. Toward the end of a rather long story, Clarence Fox of Torrance suddenly lapsed into a puzzled silence, shook his head in confusion and said, “Oh, I forgot the punch line . . . But I’ll think of it.”
Before he could, someone else did.