Cancer sufferers learn to chuckle

By Korea Herald

SNU Hospital runs laughter class for cancer patients

  • Published : Apr 5, 2013 - 20:36
  • Updated : Apr 5, 2013 - 20:36
Laughter may be the best medicine for more than 40 cancer patients who regularly participate in a weekly workshop at Seoul National University Hospital.

The program is led by Lee Yim-seon, a nurse from the department of family medicine, who is one of Korea’s pioneers of laughter therapy.

The 12-week program lasts for an hour each session. Lee leads the patients in a series of stretches to upbeat music her patients like.

She guides patients to relax their facial muscles, shoulders, intercostal muscles and legs. Eventually, her patients find themselves shaking their entire body with laughter.

“Patients’ laughter invigorates their muscles and works up a sweat, which strengthens their immune system,” she told The Korea Herald.

Patients also share life stories and their treatment progress, which she said provides emotional relief, reduces loneliness and helps patients make friends.

At the end of each session, participants are given homework to think about funny or fortunate things, which they share with other patients in the next session.

“Laughter helps individuals to enjoy social cohesion and improve self-esteem. Patients who receive laughter therapy also interact more closely with their family members.” 
Lee Yim-seon (right), a nurse and laughter therapist, joins patients in a class at Seoul National University Hospital. (Seoul National University Hospital)

Since introducing the therapy in 2005, Lee has helped approximately 8,000 cancer patients and their caretakers.

From her office located in front of an elevator that many cancer patients use, she could observe their condition well. “As I worked, I saw many patients lose vitality and strength.”

“Then, I became a patient myself for a short period due to a car accident. As a patient, I found that I was becoming depressed as well. I began to wonder about what I lost due to my ailment. Soon, I realized that I had lost my laughter, and that made a big difference.”

This made her wonder what would happen if she could give laughter back to her patients.

To learn how to help others laugh, Lee sought a recreational trainer in July 2004. However, she found that existing recreation programs were for physically fit people, and did not have many therapeutic elements that patients needed.

Therefore, she decided to create her own laughter therapy program customized to help patients.

Initially, her program was practiced specifically for breast cancer patients.

“The program was an instant hit with ladies. Breast cancer is especially critical as it can cripple a woman’s self-esteem. In our all-female session, we got to share all our pain, difficulty and get them out of our system,” Lee said.

“The program gave them a sense of freedom and restored their self-confidence.”

Following its success, her program was expanded to all cancer patients, their family and elderly people as well.

She noted that some of the participants had now formed a volunteer group to support other cancer patients at the hospital.

She has also published four books and teaches laugher therapy at Myongji University Graduate School in Seoul.

Lee, however, emphasized that laughter should not be considered a panacea, but a healthy way of everyday living.

“Laughing is not a cure-for-all, nor does it help if you laugh only during a session. Rather, one should laugh as much and frequently as possible, so that they can become physically and emotionally healthier,” she said.

“When medicine is complemented with everyday laughter, that is when we get the best results.”

By Lee Sang-ju (