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Laughter-infused therapy helps cancer patients

Laughter yoga, done regularly and continuously, can wind back negative psychological effects of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy for cancer patients, recent research has confirmed.

This research, published in the Indonesian Journal of Cancer earlier this year, is the latest in a growing evidence-based catalogue underscoring the old adage that ‘laughter is good medicine’.

What is laughter yoga?

At its most basic, laughter yoga is a process that enables us to laugh physically, without jokes or humour or good times or being in the mood.

It’s a combination of gentle stretches, playful movement, deep diaphragmatic breathwork and belly laughs.

While laughter yoga is usually practised in a group —standing or seated — it can be facilitated one-on-one.

Laughter yoga, devised by a doctor in India in the 1990s, has scientific backing to support its physical, emotional and social wellbeing benefits.

What the latest cancer and laughter yoga research shows

In the most recent published research, the participants – mostly women, mostly middle-aged, living with a cancer diagnosis of, on average, 2.5 years – were feeling pretty rubbishy.

While their cancers varied (as did the treatments), ‘sadness’ was common and given that they shared the experiences of pain, nausea, constipation, vomiting and decreased appetite, little wonder.  Such physical side effects of treatments affected daily activities which in turn impacted levels of anxiety, depression, life satisfaction and happiness.

The control group went about their every day as normal. The intervention group however attended twice weekly 30-minute laughter yoga classes for four weeks.

Laughter yoga was found to significantly improve subjective wellbeing – or happiness. It also improved peer happiness (social relationships).

Numbers were admittedly small – 40 in all: the research was carried out while COVID-19 restrictions were still impacting, in mid-2021. While the pandemic’s uncertainty could affect the cancer patients’ physical and psychological functions, the researchers  gave credit where credit was due:

Laughter yoga which is done regularly and continuously can reduce the negative effect on cancer patients who are undergoing therapy so that they can increase their sense of happiness including individual and peer happiness.

Indonesian Journal of Cancer

The Indonesian study built on much previous work, including in Iran where, almost 10 years ago, researchers sought to find a suitable stress reduction technique for cancer patients before commencing chemotherapy.

The rationale was that patients get stressed before chemotherapy, and that can cause resistance against treatment, disturbing the process.

Here’s how the researchers reported their observations, as published in the Iranian Journal of Cancer Prevention:

Decreasing stress-making hormones floating in blood, laughter removes the effects of stress.

Iranian Journal of Cancer Prevention

It’s not unheard of in Australia for laughter yoga to be practised in a clinical setting. I’m aware of it being used beyond research trials for patients receiving dialysis.Indeed I’ve facilitated and trained dialysis nurses for that setting. Actions are adapted to conditions, allowing for limited ability to move while receiving treatment.

The Iranian researchers made this closing observation:
Laughter not only creates good spirits in patients and the hospital staff, but also it can reduce the stress in patients and improve the treatment process without any harmful side-effects by creating a happy environment at hospitals.

Imagine if Australian oncology professionals considered such a non-invasive, non-medical means of inducing health-promising joy in cancer patients. Trained laughter yoga teachers (like myself) or laughter yoga leaders across Australia may be able to assist your joy-giving initiative. Let’s talk.

© 2023 HeatherJoy Campbell

HeatherJoy Campbell is a Brisbane-based laughter yoga teacher/trainer and former health journalist.