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Cancer Is a Laughing Matter at This Clinic

March 12, 1986|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

A funny thing happened the other day on the way to the cancer center. . . .

Funny ha-ha, not funny peculiar.

Arriving singly or in pairs at the center--the Wellness Community in Santa Monica--the cancer patients were smiling, giggling, talking to themselves, rehearsing their jokes.

Inside, the zingers were already flying--the zingers and the endorphins.

"This guy's driving to work and he sees this pig in the middle of the freeway," a man is saying. "He stops and grabs the pig. A highway patrolman comes by. The guy asks the cop what he should do with the pig.

" 'Why don't you take it to the zoo,' says the cop. 'Good idea,' says the guy.'

"Next day the patrolman sees the same guy driving down the same freeway. The pig is still in the car. The cop pulls him over.

" 'Hey, buddy,' the cop says, 'I thought I told you to take that pig to the zoo.'

" 'I did, I did,' says the guy, 'and we had so much fun I'm taking him to Disneyland.' "

The room breaks up.

In a way, it's a tough room to play: an audience of 40 or 45, two-thirds of them cancer patients, the rest family or friends.

It's the First Sunday Brunch Joke Fest of the Wellness Community, with prizes for best and worst, and the judging is harsh if hysterical. On a scale of 1 to 10, one woman's gag, the one about the cockeyed judge, gets a minus 5. She deserves it.

Moderator and instigator is Ken Shapiro, who orchestrates the amateurs from under a snappy wool cap. Shapiro, a very funny man who produced and directed the cult favorite "Groove Tube," is undergoing intensive cancer treatment.

Somebody has come up with some extra prizes, 10 complimentary tickets to a local race track "for anyone who tells a joke that doesn't make you throw up." Shapiro sizes up the field, decides "It's going to be hard to give all these away."

Boos and catcalls. Endorphins.

"Let's talk about the relationship between laughter and recovery," Shapiro says. "Has anyone made laughter an organized part of his or her recovery?"

"I read (Norman) Cousins' book, 'An Anatomy of an Illness,' " a man named Jeff says. (Cousins is honorary board chairman of the Wellness Community.) "He basically says that laughter produces chemicals (hormones called endorphins) that are very beneficial. That was enough for me.

Laughter Helps Recovery Process

"I've found, personally, that laughter really helps with the recovery process. Now I prefer comedies to anything else on TV. Books too. When I go to the hospital to take chemotherapy, I bring Woody Allen along."

"I got home a year ago after colon-cancer surgery," a woman says. "From then on, I've never listened to the news on the radio in the morning. I put on music instead. Then I started watching that bloopers-and-bleepers thing on TV, and I found the laughter isn't just fun, it's essential. I'm celebrating my first anniversary now, with bloopers."

"I agree," Shapiro says. "I never watch the TV news. Too depressing. For the same reason, I never, never watch commercials."

The Joke Fest resumes. It is only 11 a.m., not exactly the witching hour for wheezes. "Kinda hard to get wound up," a man whispers to his wife in the middle of a yawn. "I know," she replies. "It's tough to shed your inhibitions on prune juice."

Nevertheless, tentative titters begin to give way to guffaws. By 11:30, the endorphins are bouncing off the walls. The jokes are getting raunchy. Truly heart-warming.

"OK," says a rather prim-looking woman in a severe navy-blue suit. "Now that the gloves are off, did you hear the one about the traveling salesman. . . ?"

"The Wellness Community is not a hospice, not a place for cancer patients to cope with the disease," founder/executive director Harold Benjamin said before the Joke Fest.

"It's a place where cancer patients can learn whatever they need to know to fight for their recovery, along with their physicians."

Benjamin had been practicing law in Beverly Hills for 30 years when he became involved in "what's known as psycho-neuro immunology, the relationships between the brain and the body, how they affect each other." He became obsessed with the idea of the Wellness Community.

"From August to December of 1981, I spend most of my time writing about it--which was not lost on my law partner. One day he said, 'Harold, listen: Either come back to work or let me buy you out.'

"I thought for fully three seconds before I said, 'Buy me out.'

"I found the place (1235 5th St., Santa Monica 90401; (213) 393-1415) in April, 1982. We opened in June. We didn't have a single participant, a single backer, a single physician on our side.

"All the money that was necessary for the first 2 1/2 years, I paid. I didn't want to ask anyone else for money because I wasn't sure it was going to work.

"Now we see 275 cancer patients a week."

Slowly but perceptibly, as in a mortal struggle between the Forces of Light and Darkness, the clean jokes are making a comeback. Not racking up too many points, to be sure, but laying claim to the odd chortle all the same.

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