Skip to content

How laughter yoga can help people with cancer

  • Health

We’ve all heard the saying that ‘laughter is good medicine’ but how can it help people who have cancer? Surely that’s not something to laugh about.

Today, Thursday 27 May 2021, I was a speaker at one of the more than 19,500 registered events for Australia’s biggest morning tea, a Cancer Council fundraiser.

Three women wearing curly big wigs sell raffle tickets and laugh
Volunteers put the FUN into fundraising at one of Australia’s biggest morning tea events for Cancer Council in Brisbane today.

It was a chance for the 100 or so guests at this morning tea to give their ‘laughter muscles’ a check-over and reconsider the value of laughter in their lives from a health perspective.

It was an opportunity to share some impressive evidence-based international research about laughter yoga’s impact in helping people with cancer too.

Why laughter is good medicine

Medical research has shown laughter is good for heart health, blood pressure, diabetes and so much more, including cancer.

One common factor here —one that laughter yoga absolutely addresses—is stress.

Although stress is a normal body reaction to a perceived threat, too much stress can have a big impact on physical and emotional health. I’m not going to go into the discussion of whether stress causes cancer because, as I understand it, the medical science jury is still out on that and I’m not a medical practitioner. What is known and acknowledged is that chronic stress can contribute to heart disease, digestive issues, anxiety, depression, sleep issues, memory issues and a weaker immune system.

Cancer and stress

Three words—’You have cancer’—are perhaps the scariest in the English language.

Too many of my loved ones have received those words, and with that diagnosis has come a roller-coaster of emotions: shock, disbelief, confusion, anger, fear, anxiety, sadness, frustration… Stress is very real.

Chronic stress, as mentioned before, impacts on the immune system. Back in 2007, scientists found the stress hormone epinephrine could cause actual changes in prostate and breast cancer cells that enabled the cancer cells to resist treatments! That finding fueled yet another line of research.

People diagnosed with cancer are told again and again to adopt a positive mindset: to practise mindfulness and meditation, to explore ways to ‘let go’. This will be in their best interests, they’re told. (Indeed, my friend and colleague Ros Ben-Moshe swears by an attitude of gratitude and a healthy diet of laughter: read her book, Laughing at Cancer for more on that). But what if you’ve never meditated… or think it’s about sitting still going ‘OMMMM’…

Enter laughter yoga.

What is laughter yoga?

Laughter yoga is not about telling jokes. You don’t need to be in the mood to laugh. You don’t need to be ‘happy’. Laughter yoga, devised by Indian physician Dr Madan Kataria and his yogi wife Madhuri, approaches laughter as a body exercise. It combines intentional laughter, playful actions and yoga breathing. There may be some gentle stretches and clapping too.

Laughing, stress and chemotherapy

A few years ago, a medical research team in Iran put laughter yoga as a stress management therapy for breast cancer patients to the test, before chemotherapy.

Participants in both the control and experimental groups were questioned about aspects of psychological stress. The questions were revisited after chemotherapy.

Those who had done laughter exercises reported much less stress and much less fear, along with fewer psycho-physical complaints.

“Decreasing stress-making hormones floating the blood, laughter removes the effects of stress,” the researchers wrote in their paper, published in the Iranian Journal of Cancer Prevention.

Less pain was also noted: a beneficial by-product of laughter releasing Nature’s own morphine, endorphins. Read the full research article.

The researchers went so far as to recommend trained laughter yoga leaders on site and hospitals equipped with ‘laughter rooms’.

Iranian Journal of CAncer Prevention, 2014

Laughter’s impact on depression and anxiety in cancer patients

A study in Japan piloted a therapeutic laughter program incorporating laughter exercises among breast cancer patients.

While those in the control group showed no change in anxiety, depression or stress, those who laughed were noticeably less anxious, less depressed and less stressed, even after the first session. The therapeutic laughter program as a whole involved four 60-minute sessions. Read the full research article.

The researchers of this pilot went so far as to recommend such a program as a first-line complementary therapy.

Evidence-based Complementary and alternative medicine

A subsequent Japanese study, examining health-related quality of life in cancer patients using laughter yoga followed by traditional verbal Japanese comedy, reiterated the benefits in a clinical setting.

If you work with cancer patients and want to explore more about this healthful uplifting practice, let’s talk.

Laughter yoga as a wellbeing practice

Thankfully laughter yoga is not restricted to those with cancer, or any other illness or disease. You can do it simply because laughter feels good—and is good. Consider laughter yoga as a joyful playful de-stressing uplifting preventive health practice that you were born to do: you breathe, you laugh.

Read about 25 mind, body and social benefits of laughter yoga. And remember, those who laugh, last!

(c) 2021 Heather Joy Campbell

HeatherJoy Campbell is a former medical journalist. She is a certified laughter yoga teacher/trainer who has also undertaken science of happiness studies. HeatherJoy who lives in south-east Queensland, Australia. She works with people/organisations who need help with stress management. The Happydemic, a social enterprise, was spreading wellbeing through laughter seriously long before ‘pandemic’ became part of our everyday language.