Life – but not as you knew it: Laughter as medicine!

Got a case of the January blahs? Here at Shine, we’ve been looking at ways that we can beat the dark, grey days and bring a bit of happiness into our lives, regardless of the challenges 2015 might bring.  Luckily for us, we found Mandy Riches of Grin and Tonic which uses Laughtercise (yes, you read that correctly!) to promote physical and psychological health.  Mandy understands cancer because she’s been there: diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma twice in her twenties, she was then diagnosed in 2011/2012 with breast cancer.  Yes, we know it sounds a bit weird but we also think it sounds like lots of fun so read on and visit her website for more information!


Mandy Riches

Three-time cancer superhero and laughtercise guru Mandy Riches

 

There’s something about one year ending and a new year beginning that I find unsettling. It’s often a time for self-reflection which brings a myriad of emotions, ranging from the optimism and excitement of new opportunities, to a longing to simply curl up under the duvet and hide from the world. Since I was first diagnosed with cancer over 20 years ago, I’ve often had an urgency to really ‘live’ life though I’ve found that this is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it contributes to the fact that I can look back on 2014 and feel incredibly proud at achieving what I describe as my crazy scary challenge: cycling from Edinburgh to London in five days for charity. For someone who often feels like a cancer factory, this accomplishment helped me to regain strength both mentally and physically. The absolute focus on following my heart and in achieving something that once seemed out of reach was invigorating.

The flip side is that this urgency sometimes completely and utterly overwhelms me – the need to make the new year count, the need to make every month, every week, every day, every second count. It can be exhausting and my New Year self-reflections could easily spiral into the January blues. However, as I lie snuggled up nursing my inevitable winter cold, I have decided instead that I will laugh in the face of the January blues using Laughtercise.

What is Laughtercise I hear you ask?

Laughtercise is based on the principles of laughter yoga, which combines laughter with deep breathing. When my good friend Stephanie Hill from Grin and Tonic heard about my third diagnosis of cancer, she felt powerless and wanted to find some way to help me and my family, so she engaged us in using laughter as an exercise (as opposed to laughing at comedy or jokes). With simple, fun exercises and some deep breathing your serotonin (the happy hormone) increases, the laughter becomes contagious. You feel more relaxed, less stressed, more energised. Like many, I found it a bit barmy at first and I could have easily discarded it as “I’m way too reserved for that kind of thing”. But by simply letting go a little and using techniques to anchor it into daily life, it was brilliant.

Mandy and her colleague, Steph

Mandy and her colleague, Steph

For most of my adult life, I’ve been dancing the tango with cancer: twice with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the 1990s and then breast cancer in 2011/12. I was devastated to have cancer for a third time, and it hit me much harder emotionally. I don’t know if it was the optimism of youth that carried me through the first two, or the cumulative effect of ‘here we go again’. Perhaps there was even an element of the unfairness of the breast cancer being caused by the radiotherapy I received for the Hodgkin’s.

One way or another, I experienced an overwhelming sense of emotion. I found myself crying for no real reason, I couldn’t sleep and I’d often wake up with tears streaming down my face. I found it really difficult to articulate what was going on.  Mortality had smacked me in face again and at least some part of me felt smashed, whether that was my sense of myself and who I was, my loss of innocence, my view on time, my view on what next.

I never thought that Laughtercise would become such a useful tool, but it did, and continues to be so. It has helped me to feel more in control of my life at a point when it seemed like cancer had taken over everything and every thought. Physically, the act of laughing and the deep breathing also helped to release some of the tightness I felt in my chest following reconstruction for my bi-lateral mastectomy. It also helped me connect with my family and friends in a really meaningful way.  When you’re dealing with cancer, people don’t know if they are allowed to laugh around you.  It was easy for me to give ‘permission’ for them to laugh with me, and although it started as an exercise, it was contagious and incredibly powerful, helping them to relax and deal with my illness too.

I know it all sounds a bit mad, but honestly you have to try it!  I am passionate about bringing more laughter into the lives of as many people as possible, and together Steph and I have created a DVD called “Dealing with Cancer? Laughter Works”. January can be a tough time for many people, cancer or not. Whether you’re happy, sad, or just need a little pick me up, I’d encourage you to get out of bed, grab the next person you see, or simply look in the mirror and give it a good Ho Ho Ho. It’s infectious!

In addition to being a freelancer writer and running her own Customer Experience Consultancy, Mandy is now proud to be a Director of Laughter at Grin and Tonic.  

 

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Life – but not as you knew it: The Parent Trap

Life – but not as you knew it is our latest blog series on living with cancer as a young adult. In this blog, Sam Reynolds writes about being a parent to a toddler while having treatment for cancer.  As she points out, parenting and cancer can test our feelings of control – in both cases, we’re challenged to give in to what’s going on around us, whether we want to or not.

At Shine, we have lots of young adults who are both living with cancer and small children.  If you’d like to get in touch or discuss this blog, leave a comment, Tweet us, check out our Facebook group or follow us on Twitter. 

The Parent Trap: Living with Kids and Cancer

Guest blogger: Sam Reynolds

 

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We are respecting our parents’ wishes…..They didn’t want to shelter us from the world’s treacheries.  They wanted us to survive them.

― Lemony Snicket, The End

 My daughter was eighteen months when I was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time. I always knew she was a miracle (doesn’t every mother?) but when this happened, I cherished her even more. They are incredible little human beings – but they are also not stupid.  How do you explain cancer to a child?

On Googling this topic recently I was slightly alarmed at how little information there was for newly diagnosed parents. The first page I found was a Cancer Research UK page that blatantly suggested that patients would have grown up kids or grandkids, not young children. It took me a few more searches until I found anything useful. A lot of the information was about children with cancer. I realised it was important to share personal experiences of living with kids and cancer because there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of support out there, but it has a huge impact on people dealing with it.

It is impossible to keep your fear and stress a secret from kids.   At any age, they pick up on things. When I was first diagnosed, I wasn’t yet a parent.  When diagnosed again in 2012, my daughter was small but had a scarily good vocabulary; we immediately knew that we would have to give her a basic understanding of what was going on. Since the lump was in my clavicle, it was hard to hide the bandages after surgery; we called in an ‘ouch’.   We explained using Peppa Pig, her favourite show at the time, that Dr. Brown Bear was taking a bad bump out of Mummy’s neck and making her better. The radiotherapy schedule that followed was totally planned to fit in with her daily routine.  Every lunchtime I would put her down for a nap and a friend or family member would come and babysit for two hours while she slept and I dashed to the hospital.

I was worried about the impact all of this would have on her.  I realised we had obviously done an okay job when one day when we stopped outside the hospital where I had been treated. She asked me if this was hospital was where I got my ‘ouch’ fixed; I said yes. She then piped up, ‘I wish I could have an ouch one day so I could see Dr. Brown Bear’. My heart melted.

Earlier this year I was diagnosed for a third time; my daughter is eighteen months older but she is still incredibly young.   We have continued the ‘ouch’ phrasing – although this time the ouch was on Mummy’s boobies. We can only do what is right for her age. She will learn more as she matures, but she will always know.

The real test for me was during my stay in hospital for surgery. I was advised before the surgery not to invite her to see me. She would have been exposed to more than she could process and I would have been unable to hug and comfort her. It would be too traumatic. After the surgery, however, I was the one who felt like a child. When my mum came into see me I was very emotional and I felt like there was no way I could look after myself, let alone anyone else.  It frightened me how vulnerable and childlike I felt. I missed my daughter so much, yet the idea of being around an energetic, full-of-beans three year-old, scared me. I felt guilty. I wanted to be her mummy again but I had to put all my energy into healing and recovering without her and that was hard.

Recovering from surgery, going for treatment and living with cancer and all it’s appointments and side effects is massively demanding on anyone; as a parent it can seem doubly difficult. Trying to care for a child as well as yourself is a challenge.  On the one hand they are hugely helpful in maintaining some routine and distraction; on the other, it can become all consuming trying to make sure things are kept as normal for them as possible.  Both parenting and having a serious illness test the biggest control freaks among us; I find it an even more enormous test to just surrender at a time like this; to go with it and ride the wave.

It has been hard living with cancer and having a child though the healing that comes from the vitality, curiosity, adoration and innocence of having that little person growing up in front of me cannot be denied. Yes, at the end of a long day we can fall out; we are all tired and we are all emotional.  But tomorrow is a new day and to them, everything is forgotten.

When I was having radiotherapy two years ago it was my daughter’s second birthday. I remember thinking I must be mad to organise a two year-old’s party and to return from a 20th session of radiotherapy to entertain both children and parents.  Seeing the look of delight on her face when we brought out the cake and when we sang happy birthday…. nothing can replace those moments.  I wouldn’t let any cancer diagnosis ruin that for her, or for me.

Sam blogs regularly at samspaceblog.wordpress.com and tweets from @samboreynolds1.