PharmacyU Toronto was an absolute blast! The event was sold out and response was incredible. Many thanks to my friends at EnsembleIQ for the incredible opportunity. That’s me onstage BTW holding my arm in a very dramatic fashion. For the story that goes with this picture please go to PharmacyU !
U of T Med Magazine has done a great edition on humour in medicine. I was honoured to be included. To have a look at the other articles please go to UofTMedmagazine.
I’ve been an improviser for a long time, worked for The Second City in Canada and abroad, and to me there is something almost magical about improv.
When I was recovering from cancer, I noticed that when I went to improv shows, good things happened. I would laugh with friends, and then feel noticeably better for days. I had been in and around improv for years of course, but I wondered if this was having a positive effect on my ability to cope with life after cancer. Improv became a tool for me to deal with my condition.
I started making jokes and shows out of my situation and I was invited by some very generous people to teach workshops at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre for patients, and at the Faculty of Medicine for second-year students.
What could improv possibly do for physicians in training? Picture this: You’re in the centre of a windowless room and all eyes are on you. Sweat glistens on your forehead. You’re part of an intense improvisation game called Zulu, where the participants have to make up names for imaginary products on the spot. There’s no right answer and you can’t study for it. You have to get an idea and blurt it out. In other words, you have to be vulnerable.
I know you hate not having an answer the way my dog hates squirrels. I continue to point at you and wait for a response while 40 colleagues look on. I can see your intense desire to win but I wonder if you have difficulty connecting with people. Unfortunately, this lack of vulnerability reads as arrogance. And, as patients, we know it the instant we feel it.
I had an oncologist who shared this characteristic. He was technically competent but so arrogant and distant that he literally dismissed me from his office because he had a dinner reservation at Centro that evening. He wasn’t a bad physician, he had just forgotten how to be a human being. In that moment I felt a desperate sense of isolation. Later, I realized that the worst part about being sick for me was not feeling pain or discomfort, but experiencing isolation and fear.
That’s how I got the idea to bring improv into medicine: It came from my intense desire to increase the sense of connection between people in health care.
I’ve seen improv comedy in medicine do incredible things. I’ve seen it open up a room of physicians, patients and their care givers so that they can actually talk to each other in a meaningful way. I’ve seen cancer patients in real trouble somehow laugh at their situation and then share resources they didn’t know they had. I’ve watched as med students realize that they can relax a bit with patients; that they can (dare I say it?) be a human being with the people they serve.
Many times the laughter itself is enough to help us. Heck, who can argue with something that has been proven to increase serotonin and dopamine levels? Often though, it’s the good stuff that comes afterwards that has the real payoff. After people laugh, the natural release of oxytocin that occurs helps people bond together in an almost tribal way. They are more prone to trust each other and be generous to each other. What does this mean in medicine? It means that by using improv comedy to sneak by the sometimes brittle facade of our intellects, we find a way to our silliness, our vulnerability and our humanity. It creates a safer space for us to collaborate in a meaningful way.
To simply say that “laughter is the best medicine” is a platitude that floats by too quickly. These simple things called laughter and improv comedy can be the doorway to feeling better. There is profound good here that we can use to great effect and we have just scratched the surface.
That was a real person in my improv class, by the way — a terrified second-year medical student. I stayed silent and the group didn’t even breathe. There was no way out for him but to say something, anything. The question swirled in his brain: “What is the name of a car that should be invented?” He looked at me. I saw the light of an idea flash in his terrified eyes. “The Fartinater!” he cried.
The class roared with laughter. I applauded and declared him the winner. His face lit up like a 10-year old who has just had the best birthday ever. He was connected, with himself and those around him. Any sense of arrogance was demolished in the joy of experiencing a huge laugh from his peers. I saw a crack in the protective facade he presented to the world and I hoped that would translate to his work with patients in the future. ■
When I said this to a participant at The Canadian MPN Network Conference, it got a huge laugh. One of the great aphorisms of comedy is “Its funny ’cause its true!”
In this case, the lady I was speaking to was telling me that as a result of her being sick, she said she felt more empathy for people. She could understand others’ feelings more and she could cut other people more slack. Isn’t that fascinating? You would think that after a tough time, a lot of people would become bitter or resentful.
Often we have a chunk of adversity in our lives and somehow we manage to keep on keeping on, but after getting through the stress and navigating our way through a very difficult time often we are different. You could even say we are transformed. Some of us develop more empathy, others of us (like myself) get unreasonably pissed off for a while and pray that someone will steal candy from a baby on our street so we can start a round of fisticuffs. (After a while this anger calmed down into a state of assertiveness. I am really glad because fisticuffs are inconvenient.)
But what I have found after working with healthcare professionals and people going through life altering diseases is that our most arduous experiences change us.
One of my favourite questions to ask during a keynote is “In the experience of your journey with cancer (or another issue) what learnings or insights have you made?” People always have an answer. Nobody ever says “I feel exactly the same!” I have heard people say they are more sympathetic, more adventurous, more thoughtful, less resentful, more independent, more open to new ideas, more resilient and that they eat more dessert– to name a few.
All of this is good stuff don’t you think? I do. I love all of those things (especially the one about dessert).
So, where does this come from? Well, you may heave heard of a friend of mine called Joseph Campbell. (OK, He’s not my friend, but I like to pretend he is.) He came up with the idea of The Hero’s Journey which in a very tiny nutshell, is the idea that when we go on an adventure and face challenges and adversities that we are transformed and even improved by the experience.
I really think that is what happens to us when we deal with a transformative experience with our health. Our experience changes us, it molds and shapes us until we can look at who we used to be in the past and say “Hey, I’m a better person than I used to be.”
“Even if you are a happy person, I want you to read this book. What Rob Hawke has done is to boil down the best of positive psychology, self-help, and sage advice into a very readable (131 pages of goodness) guide to, as he says “uncovering the hidden benefits of feeling good.”
I just completed my new book “Doing Happiness: Uncovering The Hidden Benefits of Feeling Good” The good news is there are simple things we can do everyday to help us feel true happiness. More than that, I talk about the many tangible benefits our happiness brings to us and those we care about the most.I could use a bit of help.
Would you be willing to read it and write a review on amazon? It would take all of two minutes and it’s really easy.
It sounds like the set up for a joke doesn’t it? But that’s what we had on June 30th. The very first Self Care Movement Summit in Toronto went off like crazy.
People came from far and wide to participate. We had folks drive in from 5 hours away just to be there for the evening.
When you see a large conference room packed tight on a Monday night, you know that there is a real need for this. Folks needed to not only learn about what they are going through and how to deal with their situation, but they also wanted to connect with each other.
Some of the things we addressed were mindfulness, dealing with chronic illness at work, sex, intimacy, and using humour as a tool to help us every day. We had a patient panel that shared stories about what it was like to deal with our different conditions and we even managed to squeeze some laughs out of it.
OK, so we may have tried to cram too much really good content into one evening, but can you blame us? That’s like complaining that a meal has too much food or that somebody gave you too much chocolate or that your birthday present is too big to fit into your car. You get my point.
After working with cancer patients and their families for years, one of the most common things that I have heard is that once we are finished our primary care, we often feel lost. That was certainly how I felt after I got over my initial cancer treatment. My physician even looked at me and said “You’re cured” I was expecting triumphant movie music to come in as we hugged in a manly way, but the hug didn’t happen. Instead I thought “Really? I don’t feel cured. Besides, the cancer might be gone but I have this chronic situation to deal with for the REST OF MY LIFE. So, how is that cured?”
That’s what the summit was for. We were all there to talk about what happens now. How do we adjust to our lives in this “new normal”. How do we not just exist but help ourselves to thrive with the capabilities that we have?
When several hundred committed, smart and passionate people stand up and start sharing ideas, you feel it. You feel the energy shift from complacency and acceptance of the status quo to hopefulness and possibility. On Monday night a group of patients who were strangers just hours before, shared their wisdom and strategies to help people just like them.
So, back to our original question: What do you get when you have 400 people dealing with chronic conditions in one room?
Answer: A huge amount of courage and hope.
Celebrity Fan Moment
Don’t you love when you meet someone famous and they’re more impressive than you thought? I was very excited to meet Margaret Trudeau and I actually got to say hello to her backstage. I am rarely at a loss for words. However, in meeting Margaret, I was virtually tongue tied. When she did her keynote, she spoke with such wit, honesty and vulnerability that I became a fan immediately. The standing ovation she got was proof that she connected with our group.
Many Thanks Margaret!
Hey Patients, Come meet other people just like you and get some terrific resources. I am thrilled to co-host and speak at the Self Care Movement Summit at the MARS Building in Toronto.