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Cancer? Tell Two Jokes and . . . : Two women who are facing the life-threatening illness say ya gotta lighten up and laugh at life.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Take my pulse--please.

But seriously: Did you hear the one about the people who laughed in the face of a life-threatening disease?

Of course, and so has everyone else. Thanks to endorsements from such celebrities as the late comedian Gilda Radner and the late writer-turned-medical researcher Norman Cousins, the healing power of humor has become to cancer what chicken soup is to the common cold: Maybe it has curative powers, maybe it doesn’t, but at least it makes enduring the illness a little easier.

Scientists have recognized in recent years that laughter helps remove the toxins produced by stress, according to Lynda Towle Moss of Orange. She ought to know. Moss, a psychologist, stand-up comic and ovarian cancer patient, was giving talks on the physiological benefits of laughter long before she got personally involved with either comedy or cancer.

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“After laughter, the blood pressure drops below normal for a brief period,” she says. “Breathing slows, and endorphins--the body’s natural painkillers--are released. The immune system is enhanced, and the thymus, which controls all the hormones that regulate the immune system and shrinks under stress, is exercised and that process is reversed.

“The cardiovascular system dilates, which prevents constriction of blood vessels and increases the flow of oxygen; the lungs expand to take in more air and cleanse the body, and the muscles contract and then relax.”

But now that she has become an expert of a different kind, Moss--who for years has worked with cancer patients and others dealing with the psychological ramifications of physical problems--says she has learned that laughing is really only one aspect of an overall philosophy of making pleasure a priority.

“It’s not just humor,” she says. “Basically, we need to lighten up on everything and see what’s important in life.”

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Moss the comedian puts it yet another way, singing:

“Smile, though your back is breaking,

Smile, though your doctors think you’re faking.”

There are other adaptations of musical classics:

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“When my neck aches,

“When my hand shakes,

“When I’m feeling sad,

“I simply remember my favorite pills, and then I don’t feel so mad.”

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Communication specialist Trudy Sargent of Fullerton, who was found to have breast cancer three years ago, agrees with Moss. “A lot of times, cancer patients and people in general don’t give ourselves permission to enjoy life. And when the situation is really serious, sometimes the best thing you can do is not be serious at all.”

What else can you do, Sargent tells audiences, when your 2-year-old bites a hole in your breast prosthesis less than an hour before an important business meeting? “You laugh, you put a Band-Aid on it, you go to the meeting and then you start calling around to find a patch kit.” And if you feel sort of silly having to deal with problems like that, it may be just as well, she says.

Both women are now trying to help others find ways to enjoy life more. Sargent will be conducting a workshop on “Joy, Humor and Laughter” Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m., at the Wellness Community Orange County in Santa Ana. Moss, who has also worked with the Wellness Community, will be speaking Sept. 10 from noon to 1 p.m. on “Humor: The World’s Greatest Painkiller.”

Cancer cost her a breast, but Sargent, 37, says the disease has taught her to make the most of whatever comes along. “Cancer has given me my life,” she says. “Bills do not run my life. ‘What ifs’ do not run my life. Defeatist thoughts don’t run my life. I run my life, and I can live it in a way that I enjoy.”

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So now, instead of compulsively cleaning house every Saturday morning, “I may just go to the beach or go out and fly a kite instead. I’ve learned to take time for me and enjoy that without feeling guilty.”

Too often, cancer patients and the people around them feel guilty for taking time out from the seriousness of the disease and its treatment.

“I’ve talked to doctors who say their patients are afraid to give themselves permission to take a vacation or go away for the weekend. Or mothers at CHOC (Children’s Hospital of Orange County), who take a minute to share a laugh out in the hallway late at night while their kids are hooked up to IVs with chemotherapy drugs. They don’t understand that laughter is a tension release, something they need so they can keep going.”

Moss, 52, who became aware of her illness the day the Persian Gulf War started in January (“I think there may be a connection,” she says with a laugh), plans to take her cancer comedy act on the road after she finishes chemotherapy. She had already put together a stand-up routine and performed a couple of times before she became ill.

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“I had to throw away all my old material when this happened,” she says, “but this has given me lots of new material.”

One important change, she says, is that “I’ve cleaned up the act. I used to have some negativity in it, but now, everything’s got to be positive. I’m trying to do that with all aspects of my life.”

Moss insists that her doctor comply with those wishes. “I told him I only wanted to hear the positive stuff about my treatment. I didn’t want anyone saying, ‘You only have one year to live’ or anything like that.”

She has another requirement as well: “He has to laugh at all my jokes.”

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Sargent’s seminar is part of a daylong series of events at the Wellness Community. The morning sessions, with music therapist Jo Ann Quak, focus on music therapy for cancer patients. All Wellness Community events are free to cancer patients and their loved ones. For more information, call (714) 258-1210.

There is also no charge to attend Moss’ presentation or the ovarian cancer support group she is starting Sept. 16. For more information, call (714) 639-0339.


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