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Things that don't kill us make us stronger

Catherine Ripplinger Fenwick c 1996

I am a very lucky person. I have a job that I love, co-workers whom I admire and respect, a loving supportive family and the health and energy to do the things I want to do. It hasn't always been that way.

Five years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. For two years I was away from my job periodically while undergoing surgery and chemotherapy. Two of my children were at university and two were in high school. It was a time that tested my courage on many levels.

Recently, I reread the many cards and letters I received. Some were funny, some were spiritual, and some of the most touching ones were home-made. Through these cards and letters, and through phone calls and visits, I received the threads of encouragement and hope that were woven together to get me through the really rough times. One of the cards read, "What you need to feel better is a bowl of homemade chicken soup, a backrub and a new red sports car". I've had lots of soup and backrubs, but I'm still waiting for the red sports car.

Cancer treatment can be extremely difficult and it can take every ounce of your will power to keep going. I wish that every cancer patient could have the kind of support I received from family, friends and co- workers. When they didn't know what they could do to help, they asked.

Questions I most often heard from people during this time were:
"What should I do?" "How can I help?" and "I don't know what to say." My answer is, LISTEN. If someone you know is ill and wants to talk about it, then listen. Some people need to talk about their fears and concerns and it helps to have someone listen to them. Others do not want to talk about it and their wish for privacy should be respected.

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross, On Death and Dying, described five emotional stages that many people experience when they know that death is imminent - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Many people encounter these emotions when they experience a loss of any kind. I believe there is one more stage which helps us to transcend the loss. This stage nourishes us and provides us with the strength to carry on when the next loss occurs. This is the "pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again " stage. This is the stage when we learn to laugh. We are reminded that those things in life that don't kill us can make us stronger.

Laughter plays a vital part in any healing.
Jaw bones talk a lot
Back bones work a lot
Funny bones lighten the load

The use of humour as a method of stress reduction and healing became popular in the 1980's following the publication of Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins (1979). Cousins, suffering from a painful life-threatening disease, claimed that laughter was a significant feature of his treatment and recovery.

Cousins surrounded himself with lots of comedy videos, tapes, and books. He discovered that 10 minutes of solid belly laughter would give him two hours of pain-free sleep. He believed that under certain conditions our bodies secrete healing chemicals. Those conditions include love, hope, faith, will to live, purpose, determination and joy; all of which are enhanced by the presence of laughter.

A long hard laugh is like internal jogging. It gets the heart beating faster, brings in extra oxygen and stimulates blood circulation. Your whole body relaxes and you feel better.

A good laugh can help us see life from a different perspective and face our problems with renewed concentration and hope. Healthy laughter helps us to feel better, get along with others and connect with our spiritual source. My sense of humour has been a valuable asset in my life. Family gatherings with home movies and funny stories told around the big kitchen table provide some of my most enjoyable moments.

Watching a group of five year old children playing soccer breaks me up. Then there's the time my son came home from kindergarten in December and told me he was going to be one of the three wise guys in the Christmas play.

During my recovery period I created a Laughter First Aid Kit which I share with people when I know they need a laugh. This kit includes humorous videos, tapes, books, cartoons and scrapbooks. These scrapbooks contain a collection of joyous pictures and stories; and a few jokes and cartoons. I have made several scrapbooks and given them to people when I know they need a lift.

Remember: Life does not cease to be funny when something bad happens any more than it ceases to be serious when we are laughing.

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