Just before Thanksgiving of 2019, Jacquelyn Fletcher Johnson discovered a lump in her breast. “It was a big one,” she said. She found out it was cancer on Friday, Dec. 13, and “down the rabbit hole” she went, beginning chemotherapy and a drug trial using immunotherapy treatment at the University of Minnesota.
The emotional turmoil of her diagnosis was only the half of it. As cancer coursed through her body, the coronavirus was coursing into the United States. In a matter of two days this spring, Fletcher Johnson, a Lakeville-based author, public speaker and teacher of resilience and mindfulness, lost all of her business.
So she did the only thing that made sense: She laughed.
And as she laughed, she noticed that her fever ticked down a notch in the wee hours of the morning, her anxiety lessened and her pain, while still intense, was easier to manage.
After getting the green light from her husband and 12-year-old daughter, Fletcher Johnson created the Facebook page, “Holy Crap, I Got Cancer During the Coronavirus Comedy Show” (facebook.com/cccomedyshow).
The site features Fletcher, 47, as “Baby Monk,” a goofy alter-ego infant with Fletcher’s hairless face, sharing “baby wisdom,” (read: deep and touching reflections for grown-ups). There’s also a hat fashion show and interviews with fellow comedians — “to make me laugh,” she said — including Chloe Radcliffe, a writer for the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and author and improv star Lorna Landvik.
“When you look death in the face, which so many of us are doing with the coronavirus, suddenly all that stuff about what other people think about you just falls away,” said Fletcher Johnson, who is also the stepmother to three young adults. “The things we limit ourselves with in our heads are just gone.”
The healing power of humor is hardly a new concept. But, pushed to the limits as so many of us feel currently, it’s looking like a life raft.
“We are dealing with grief because of so many losses: COVID, racial tensions, our political climate,” said Melissa Baartman Mork, author of “Navigating Grief With Humor” and a professor of psychology at University of Northwestern in St. Paul. Mork is also one of only a few certified humor professionals in the world, a designation bestowed on her through the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor.
“There’s the loss of freedom and autonomy and meaningful work — and tied to all of this a loss of identity,” she said. “We can’t make fun of it. But there are ways we can find humor or create humor that will help us cope.”
Norman Cousins was an early adapter of that very idea, becoming a household name in 1979 after writing “Anatomy of an Illness,” which described his recovery from a painful collagen disease that rendered him immobile. Cousins, who lived to 75, claimed that heavy doses of laughter therapy led to little pain in his day-to-day living.
A movie starring Robin Williams profiled American doctor Patch Adams who, with his protégés, dressed as clowns to bring humor and hope to orphans and others.
The international laughter yoga site, laughteryoga.org, reports that the combination of laughter exercises with yoga breathing techniques is being practiced in more than 20,000 free laughter clubs in 110 countries.
And, remarkably, even witnesses to humanity’s greatest atrocity used humor, noted Mork, pointing to the work of Chaya Ostrower, Ph.D., an Israeli psychologist who studied humor’s potential with survivors of the Holocaust. “Their answers were deep and profound and hilarious,” Mork said.
“What it came down to [was that] humor was mental perseverance, a sign of vitality and resilience. They were rising above the guards and the Nazis. They were not making light. They were saying, ‘We’re looking for the light, the levity, the mirth as a means of self-perseverance, showing that we’re going to get through this.”
Mork found humor a personal salve when her 53-year-old husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2017. He died 4½ months later, leaving behind Mork and two teenage children.
On their recent wedding anniversary, Mork said she cried and cried — and then started writing stand up comedy, including a joke that remains one of her favorites: “They say you can’t take it with you. But it turns out the one thing you can take with you is all of the passwords.”
Mork suggests that we find things that make us laugh: memes, sitcoms — anything that lifts us up and connects us to people who are funny. Mork has been known to dress up as a clown, mime or scuba diver with an oxygen tank when bringing her trash cans down to the street.
“I would laugh so hard doing it,” she said.
Humor, she said, “provides perspective and power over the situation. Fear, anxiety and rage are toxic; 2020 has been a nightmarish year, but we do have a choice about light and levity and surrounding ourselves with people who are also fun and funny and grateful.
“Survivors are saying, ‘We have the final choice.’ ”
Find the funny
Dana Bartocci, 44, of White Bear Lake, shares a similar story. Her 37-year-old husband, Matt, died in 2011 on their son’s third birthday, due to complications of cystic fibrosis.
“You mourn him every day,” said Bartocci, a lawyer and corporate trainer who was 36 at the time. The couple also had a young daughter. She briefly attended a young widows’ support group and spent too much time alone.
“It sucked,” she said. “I never really let myself admit … we never really talked about the fact that he was not going to be there. I thought he’d be there longer than he was.”
Then, out of nowhere, she cracks: “Thank you for whoever got him cremated!”
Yep, Bartocci found her funny. Remarried in 2013, and now also the mother of a 5-year-old son, Bartocci responded in January to a call for “A Night of Jewish Storytelling,” at the Sabes Jewish Community Center of Minneapolis as part of the 2020 Twin Cities Jewish Humor Festival.
“I told [my husband] Jason, ‘I’m going to talk about Matt’s death.’ ”
The audience was unsure at first whether to laugh at her admittedly bawdy story about a beaver stuffed animal given to one of her grieving children; soon, though, the packed house was raucous.
“I felt really good just getting on the stage and seeing all the people there,” Bartocci said. “I felt so supported and loved. It’s OK to talk about death. If you don’t find humor in this, you might as well be dying, too.”
John Moe long ago embraced comedy to make sense of his mental health challenges. His “The Hilarious World of Depression” aired on American Public Media from 2016 until May, when it was cut due to what the company said were financial difficulties. Episodes remain online at hilariousworld.org.
Moe, who is promoting his new book and considering his podcasting options, said the show’s mission was to “knock down the power of depression by talking about it openly and laughing about it.
“Humor is about humanity,” Moe said. “It’s about seeing yourself and the world better by coming at it from an angle that shows the fragility and ridiculousness. And people like to laugh. For depression, it’s a way of softening up what can be a hard and scary topic.”
Moe said he began to experience symptoms of depression in junior high; his brother, Rick, died by suicide in 2007. Through his radio program, Moe met numerous fellow comedians who also have combated depression, “and who have learned how to talk about it in a way that’s relatable. It’s not a cure or treatment. Just a chance to hang out with people who understand.”
With the stresses of COVID-19, Moe encourages people feeling depressed or anxious to educate themselves and ask for help. “There’s no way that you’re the first one to feel this, no matter what it is, and chances are it has a name and a variety of ways of addressing it.”
‘Feel all of it’
In 2011, Diana Korpi of Minneapolis was preparing to be an empty nester. “I was looking for something to fill my time,” she said. “I wanted to feel happier.”
She embraced laughter yoga, becoming a certified instructor, and began taking improv classes. In 2013, her husband was diagnosed with cancer and she experienced heart failure. A year later, after he was deemed cancer-free, they divorced after 26 years of marriage.
“Oh, and my dog died and my cat died, and then we did go broke. I was so lucky I’d been doing this work for a couple of years,” she said. “I just doubled down.” (She mentions later that she’s had Crohn’s disease since she was 23.)
“It sounds like I have a pathetic life,” said Korpi, the mother of two young-adult children, “but I really don’t. I’m one of the happiest people around.”
In 2014, she created the website, seriously-happy.com, to teach and share tools and information from positive psychology experts. The site features funny blog posts and links to her classes, including one on how to rewire our brains. She recently created a presentation for Fletcher Johnson’s Facebook followers and hosted an online event on her site, called “Rewire Your Brain — Appreciation Practices for Hard Times.”
Korpi said she may need a heart transplant in the future. But for now, she’s focusing on gratitude.
“I’ve heard from other people that they look at me and think I’m magic. What I want people to know is we all have this ability but it’s hard to get to it. It’s hard to make laughing sounds when the world is falling apart. But the way to heal the world is taking care of ourselves and then creating community where we take care of each other. Maybe that’s naive, but I don’t see any other way to do that.”
Fletcher Johnson couldn’t agree more.
“I am noticing that I have laughed more since I started this than I laughed in the last 20 years,” said Fletcher Johnson who, in June, completed her last round of chemotherapy. “I find myself turning to laughter more often, to hope more often; this is changing my brain. It doesn’t mean I’m denying the hard stuff. There is that part. I made a deal with myself that I would feel it all. There are dark days, very, very hard parts to this, but I’m finding that because I’ve allowed myself to feel all of it, lightness is also coming in.”