Confronting Cancer with Humor with Aviva Wachs

Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2003

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Many find it hard to find time to laugh in the face of serious illness. Humor has stress relieving properties that benefit the soul and the body. Aviva Wachs will discuss how humor has helped her deal with cancer and how it can help others.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Event_Moderator Aviva Wachs is a graduate of New York University with a Masters in Psychology from Antioch University. She is currently in private practice in Beverly Hills as a marriage and family therapist Intern under the license of Jonathan Flier MFT. She was diagnosed with stage 3-b lung cancer that had spread to her lymph system. She is cofounder of Humor Heals, a workshop that facilitates a person's sense of humor and the absurd in the face of tragedy or trauma.

Aviva, welcome to WebMD Live.

Wachs_Speaker Thank you very much!

Wachs_Speaker I guess I just wanted to add to the bio that in being diagnosed with cancer myself I was really asked to walk the walk of my own business and to find out that there was a tremendous release in using humor to deal with the trauma of cancer.

Event_Moderator When did you find comedy as somewhat of a treatment?

Wachs_Speaker Well, I had, for years been an improviser, improv comedy, director, teacher, and performer in LA and NY and when I went into psychology it was with the intention of using humor as a therapeutic tool. And, having that in place when I was diagnosed, set the stage. There's a tremendous amount of absurdity in cancer!

Event_Moderator How did you get involved with Humor Heals?

Wachs_Speaker I co-founded Humor Heals with my partner Robin, who was also in the entertainment business as a producer of comedy and we both saw something quite healing in people's stories about their tragedy and triumph over it. When we saw Julia Sweeney who did 'God said 'ha!'' or Louie Anderson, it peaked our interest.

Event_Moderator What comedians work with Humor Heals? Have you ever done standup? Where can someone find information about Humor Heals?

Wachs_Speaker  We have a phone number: 310 712-3980 and email is [email protected]

Event_Moderator Are there any other organizations that are similar to Humor Heals?

Wachs_Speaker You know, none that I know of.

There's a tremendous amount of press around "distraction humor", which is clowns working with kids or .. after "Patch Adams" there was stuff with Norman Cousins healing himself with Marx Brothers movies.

As far as I know, Humor Heals is the only group work done with internally produced humor; it's only dependent on the person and their own sense of what's funny.

Event_Moderator What are the benefits of Humor when faced with a critical disease like cancer?

Wachs_Speaker I can tell you from my own experience with my own cancer.  You know, when you become faced with something with such upheaval attached to it, you can feel out of control or helpless and hopeless. The one thing I felt like I did have control of was my attitude and it was very empowering to take a step back and look at some of the absurdity of my any given day interactions with the medical field and the alternative medicine field. It helped me to not feel quite so helpless. If I give an example, it'll be clearer.

When, after it was discovered that I had tumors in my chest and lungs, but they didn't know what it was, I went to one doctor who had good credentials and came highly recommended.  He told me with utter conviction that it was lymphoma that spread to my lungs. The next day I had a second opinion with a reputable doctor who told me that it was lung cancer that spread to the lymphs. The absurdity of both of these doctors with complete belief in what we were saying. I turned to them and said, "Are you sure it's not anal fissures?" They had something the complete opposite of each other! That made me feel better, cause it located the power back to me and away from the doctors who were basically talking out of their asses. It was based on their opinion! Neither one of them had opened me up and looked to see what it was.

Event_Moderator What is the difference between a victim and a survivor?

Wachs_Speaker Wow. It's difficult for me to answer that because I feel like if I say what makes a survivor, I don't feel comfortable saying that. I feel there's a difference between feeling empowered and unempowered and it has to do with being able to step back and have perspective of any kind. And, when I ask people to talk about what's absurd and funny about what's going on with them, it's asking them to step back and get perspective. I think there's something empowering about doing that.

Event_Moderator How can a cancer patient optimize their doctor/patient relationship?

Wachs_Speaker I feel like if they remember that they themselves are a human being first and a cancer patient second and the doctors are humans first, doctors second, that levels the playing field. Their opinions are equal if not more important than their doctors. The doctors can be seen as consultants and not authorities.

Event_Moderator What treatments are there for 3-b lung cancer and lymph cancer?

Wachs_Speaker I often use my humor to knock the doctors off the position of authority. I'm not a doctor so there's the things that were suggested to me, chemotherapy and radiation. I wasn't given a good prognosis cause it was extensively spread throughout my chest, neck, and lungs. I'm not sure what exactly it is you're going for.

I think the point I want to make is that there wasn't a tremendous amount of hope given to me when I was diagnosed and I didn't want to buy into that. No one can tell anybody .... talk about absurd ... they simply don't know how long someone has to live ....they really don't know.

Event_Moderator What is the best way to handle a loved one's cancer diagnosis?

Wachs_Speaker  I don't think there's a one way at all. I think it's a very complex, very individual process. I would say that what was helpful to me as someone facing it was for my family to do what they needed to do to take care of themselves. But, with much respect, I might not agree or need or want to hear everything that they want to find out about. My family was extremely supportive of that. My husband checked out things on the internet and there were things I wanted. They weren't always in agreement and that can be more than okay! Nobody's cancer is the same.

vikki3_Lycos Hello, How are you this evening? I have a question for you. My father was diagnosed with colon cancer and three weeks ago had surgery to remove a tumor in his large bowel. Approximately 12 inches of intestine was removed and after the surgery he seemed to be doing fine. He is a very active, healthy 70-year-old (otherwise healthy anyway).  Approximately three days after the surgery he started having problems urinating. It reached the point that he couldn't go at all. He's now on medication and an ultrasound was done. We were told by the pathologist that two lymphnodes had been found in the tumor and one of them was cancerous. The doctor that did the ultrasound said that his prostate was also enlarged and he would have to more than likely have it removed soon. My question is this: Since cancer has been found in his lymph nodes, shouldn't we HURRY and start Chemo?? And what do you think is a good approach to this psychologically? 

Wachs_Speaker Not being a doctor, I don't know how to specifically address whether or not they should do chemo. From a psychological standpoint, it's a very hard place to be as a family member, to watch someone not have hope. And, to find a place ... find a balance between trying to instill hope or just accepting wherever her father is in this very difficult time. My heart says, my heart goes out to her as a family member, and also says that in allowing her father to feel whatever he's feeling, he might move on to a place of hope. You can't force someone to have hope. But, I'd encourage her to ask her dad what is the craziest and most absurd part of this entire experience and to really listen to what his answer is.

Event_Moderator In what ways has cancer changes your goals in life?

Wachs_Speaker  There's been a lot of priority shifting which I think happens whenever we're faced with our mortality. But, I feel like I've been given huge gifts from the cancer. One of which is to find out that the ability to laugh in the face of your own mortality is a very powerful, powerful place to be. My goals in terms of being a therapist and in terms of being someone who helps facilitate people's senses of humor in he face of trauma have been strengthened. It's made it almost a moral imperative to me.

Event_Moderator Why is group therapy such a positive thing?

Wachs_Speaker I think group therapy is powerful for a number of reasons:  The energy in a room is just that much stronger because there's so many voices and thoughts, people interacting. If one person is in a room with a therapist, the power of the words are on a certain level. The same thing being said and witnessed by other group members is way more powerful in it's impact. Sometimes when you're in a group and are seeing things in a sad way and talking about it, and people are in agreement about how horrible it is, there's something funny about it and you may not find that by yourself. When we work together with groups, we ask people to share things they've written down and there's always relief and humor when they share them.

Event_Moderator Are people surprised that so many others are afflicted with the same diseases that they have?

Wachs_Speaker Well, because we tailor-make the workshops to specific populations, everyone has something in common. In businesses, it's everyone in middle management, or in a hospital, it's people with a specific disease. But, there's commonality in the horror.

Event_Moderator How can cancer affect the workplace?

Wachs_Speaker I would ask the question the other way around! (laughs). There's a tremendous amount of research that points to stress as activating cancer, and not just stomach cancer, which most think of as when people get stressed. It's not just stomach aches or ulcers, but all kinds of cancers! So, the idea of finding some kind of stress relief is a smart way of cutting down on all kinds of diseases in the workplace.

Event_Moderator Were you able to work while going through treatment?

Wachs_Speaker  Yes. I cut back drastically and felt like my work was equally as important in my treatment, as was my chemo, radiation, acupuncture, meditation and nutrition. It helped me keep in touch with the fact that I was more than just someone who was struggling with cancer.

Event_Moderator Do you recommend traditional or alternative medical practices?

Wachs_Speaker I believe that it's a highly individual decision and what I think makes the most sense is for the person to gather as much information as possible about their options. They will know what works for them and what doesn't. There's been too many cases of people who have done only traditional and some survive and some don't; the same odds are with alternative. It's a matter of what I chose to believe in; it might as well have been sterile water.  If I believed in that, I believe it would have worked.

Event_Moderator How can a cancer patient best handle the side effects of treatment?

Wachs_Speaker  In terms of humor, there's really nothing more horrible and humorous than all the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. So, I think there's a certain amount of mitigation that happens when you can laugh at yourself.

Also, there are things that western medicine has to offer in terms of mitigating side effects. Deepak Chopra's books talk about what you can do and Bernie Siegel's books, too. I personally relied heavily on my acupuncturist, nutritionist, and people who gave me herbs and supplements to help mitigate side effects.

Event_Moderator There have been studies that laughter can activate your immune system. What do you feel about those studies?

Wachs_Speaker  Yes. I think that ... I believe it for a number of reasons. When you laugh, on a physiological basis, you draw more oxygen into your body and that can only be good. Your pulse changes, your breathing changes, your outlook changes, and a certain amount of endorphins are released, so there've been studies about pain relief from laughter as well. I physically experienced that too. When I was laughing, I was in a lot less pain.

Event_Moderator What typical intimacy problems do cancer patients suffer from?

Wachs_Speaker It's interesting because I think that people talk a lot about how badly they feel about how their cancer is impacting on their loved ones; certainly in terms of intimacy, as well as a whole host of other impacts. Again, we do a lot of talking about the details about that and what exactly becomes difficult and how have you found ways to circumvent the difficulty. But, it takes the stigma away when things get talked about. The therapist in me wants to say that those are great moments for more intimacy when you talk about the difficulty, but the humorist in me wants to say it's great fodder because sex talk leads to laughter inevitably.

Event_Moderator What advice can you give to people who have lost loved ones to cancer?

Wachs_Speaker  I actually have not worked with people who have lost loved ones. I know that there are a lot of support groups for that. I would think there are probably stages to that and that a place for finding the humor or absurdity might be a later stage when someone has lost a loved one. It's a very individual thing. I haven't had personal experience in dealing with that.

Event_Moderator The movie "Man in the Moon" has sparked interest in Andy Kaufman and how he passed away from a rare form of lung cancer. Has his fight with cancer inspired the comedic community in any way?

Wachs_Speaker  In general, no. We really try to stick with people's personal experiences and what is going on in their lives because when you start comparing with someone else, especially a celebrity, it can do more damage than good. Whereas, if it's someone's personal experience, they can take that away and deal with it for the rest of their lives. They don't have to be inspired by a celebrity or rent a movie.

Event_Moderator What medical breakthroughs in cancer research have occurred as of late?

Wachs_Speaker There are so many cancers and so much research. I know there's a lot of debate going on about the actual causalities or sources of cancer, but chemotherapy is constantly changing and growing and there's a large push away from it. But, not being an oncologist, I hesitate to say more than that.

Event_Moderator What is the status of America's current healthcare system?

Wachs_Speaker (laughs!!) (laughs more!!) Oh, I .... having been locked into an HMO situation myself, I find it horrific and hope that there will be changes. BUT, one of the great things about being locked into a horrible situation is it forced me to find my own resources and stand up in a way that I don't know that I would have if it had been different. This is not to say that it's a good system, I think it's problematic, difficult, expensive, and fear-based, and I hope it will one day change.

Event_Moderator What do you hope it would change to?

Wachs_Speaker I would hope that I would have had access to more doctors. I had to go out-of-pocket to get opinions from people who weren't on my particular referral list of doctors. I also really wish that the acupuncture and the Chinese herbs had been covered and they're simply not covered with my plan (alternative treatments).

Event_Moderator How do people pay for treatment when they don't have insurance?

Wachs_Speaker I think that ... I don't know. But, I don't think that anyone is ever turned down through the county system, but I don't know, unless they turn to their family or community for help. They only get a thin slice of possible treatment, or they do clinical trials, making themselves into human guinea pigs in order to have access to drugs they wouldn't otherwise have access to. That's scary.

Event_Moderator How did you know you had a problem with your lungs?

Wachs_Speaker I had chest pain, headaches, and a rash that none of the doctors could identify. The dermatologist had no idea what it was! I had been compartmentalizing all the symptoms I had for a month or two, until I went to my GP with the list and asked for a blood test and X-ray. As soon as they saw that, within an hour I got a call telling me it was lung cancer that spread to my lymphs.

Event_Moderator Did you go on treatment right away?

Wachs_Speaker I began alternative treatments before I was fully diagnosed by the western community because I felt I had to do something right away. It was a long wait to get approval from my HMO. We decided to do chemotherapy and radiation pretty quickly, me and my doctor.

Event_Moderator What's the difference between an oncologist and hematologist?

Wachs_Speaker I know an oncologist works with cancer patients and I believe a hematologist works with blood, but don't hold me to that! 

Event_Moderator What advice can you give to cancer caregivers?

Wachs_Speaker The two things I think are really important are to make sure that they are also being taken care of.  Don't put that aside, that's the hardest job, to be the caregiver.

The second thing is to exercise your opinion until the person who is going through the cancer has made their choice about what they're going to do and then fully support them in it even if you don't agree with it, even if they choose to die. They need full support.

Event_Moderator Did you find any resources on the internet for your cancer?

Wachs_Speaker  I mostly did a lot of reading of books. I know my husband did a lot of research on the net. I was less interested in the odds. I found myself less interested in other people's stories and even if I had a twin sister with the exact same cancer, hers would be different than mine. I did gather a lot of information from books. I highly recommend Deepak Chopra's "Quantum Healing", that was very effective for me.

Event_Moderator Then did you present all of it to your doctor?

Wachs_Speaker I did two things. Once I looked at everything out there, I meditated on what made the most sense to me, and listened to the suggestions of the doctors. The other thing I did was amassing a team. I connected my doctors with each other and made sure they were in communication with each other so that we all worked as a team with my health.

Event_Moderator How many different doctors did you have in your team?

Wachs_Speaker I had an oncologist, radiologist, and a acupuncturist who also had a western medical degree.

Event_Moderator Did they ever disagree with your treatment?

Wachs_Speaker (laughs) I didn't give them a choice! I know that they were all vying for the credit when things worked and were very ready to blame each other when they didn't! 

Event_Moderator Should people have many or one doctor?

Wachs_Speaker I absolutely think that each person should be their own arbiter of that; check in with themselves and whatever feels right for them, they should go with.

Event_Moderator What insurance issues should a cancer patient consider?

Wachs_Speaker  I know that my .... I don't know if I could ever get life insurance, but I know I'll be sticking with the insurance I have for at least ten years before I have the opportunity to go elsewhere.

Event_Moderator What can be done to raise public awareness of cancer patients?

Wachs_Speaker I think that if every person who had cancer wrote a letter to their congressman, and there is a tremendously huge population of cancer patients and family members of them, there could be quite a movement! I heard that one out of every four women was going to get some kind of cancer in their lifetime. I don't know why I don't know the male statistics; maybe because I'm a woman! 

Event_Moderator Will Humor Heals ever have a website?

Wachs_Speaker We're working on it.

Event_Moderator When do you expect it up?

Wachs_Speaker Some time within the next couple of months.

Event_Moderator How did you feel when you first heard you had cancer? Are there different stages that people go through?

Wachs_Speaker I know that Kubler Ross had the stages of dying.  I hadn't noted the stages to the cancer thing.  At the same time, a lot of shock, anger and fear ... but I don't know that they're stages we go through. I think everyone feels all of it all along and it's attending to those feelings that they can be released. We're sort of taught to not talk about this stuff.  There's a shame around cancer that is just slowly starting to lift up.

Event_Moderator How should someone looking for alternative doctors find them? The Yellow Pages?

Wachs_Speaker I think there are certain publications that exist nationwide that deal with health and alternative treatments, and that's one way to go about it.  Another way is word of mouth; another way is to open up the yellow pages for chiropractors, ayurvedic therapists, and healers, acupuncturists, etc.

Event_Moderator  What progressive cancer research is currently being done?

Wachs_Speaker Uh oh! (laughs) This is that area where I'd be talking as if I knew something that I don't. There is something I'd like to say. There had been a question earlier on about how the cancer affected my life. The one thing I noticed in Humor Heals and private practice is the ability to sit with pain and death in a way that I wasn't able to before I had to face my own mortality.

Event_Moderator Did someone show you how to do that?

Wachs_Speaker  No. I think it's a direct result of having to have faced my own mortality. This wasn't something that I decided to do, this is a byproduct ... a gift of the terror and horror of facing your mortality. There's a real relief and ability to be okay, because this is the worst that it's going to be ... I can do this. To connect to that place with another human being is more precious to me than any of the other lessons that I learned from having cancer.

Event_Moderator Did you meditate before you were diagnosed?

Wachs_Speaker  Yeah, I did but not nearly to the extent that I do now. If someone told you that juggling three eggs and spinning around was going to help you, you'd find a way to do it!  So, my focus and ability to meditate got really strong! I'm not sure how helpful I've been because I'm not a doctor, but this has been a very nice experience and if it was helpful to anyone in any way, I'm glad and very honored.

Event_Moderator Thank you for joining us, Aviva. 

Wachs_Speaker Thank you!

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