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Cancer Therapy Treats Funny Bone : Medicine: The Pink Panther danced his way into the hearts of patients at Hoag Hospital. Officials said his visit is just the beginning of an ambitious laughter therapy program.


NEWPORT BEACH — When a life-size version of the Pink Panther cartoon came to Hoag Hospital, ailing children laughed and clasped his fuzzy paws with delight.

But the Panther, a gangling but dapper beast with bright pink fur and a spangled black vest, got his most enthusiastic response on the oncology ward--from adults.

Cancer patients looked startled as the Panther danced a jig from room to room but they cheered quickly, greeting him with laughs and broad smiles. "He's all right!" cried Jan Hakinson, 52. A visit from a cartoon figure may seem childish, she said, but "what else can you do to cheer yourself up? If you lose your mood, your ability to laugh, it's an uphill struggle to get well."

The Panther's recent visit was mainly a publicity bid by MGM to celebrate the film's 25th anniversary. Hoag seized the moment to showcase the hospital's new laughter therapy program.

Administrators at Hoag's cancer center base the program on recent theories that laughter releases tension and grief--as well as powerful brain chemicals called endorphins that promote healing.

A growing number of medical researchers report that laughter interrupts normal breathing rhythms, promoting relaxation and lowering blood pressure. "Ho-ho-holistic medicine," some proponents have called it. And in "Anatomy of an Illness," writer Norman Cousins espouses his conviction that 20 minutes of hearty laughter each day cured him of a crippling spinal disease.

Hoag officials don't agree with Cousins that continuous laughter can cure disease.

"To cure it is too strong," said oncology nurse Sharon MacDonald, administrative director of Hoag's cancer center. "But your outlook will impact your response to the illness. Just as a chemotherapy agent impacts your whole being, anything that increases endorphins will impact your wholeness. . . . And there is evidence to suggest that those with a positive outlook have a longer disease-free period."

Across the nation, a handful of hospitals have begun laughter programs in the last five years. Locally, St. Joseph Hospital in Orange includes laughter in its support groups--humor becomes a way to cope with the disease. Cancer patients there, for example, will joke about losing their hair. "They see the humor in this terrible thing that's happening to them," said clinical social worker Donna Baker.

But Hoag appears to be the only hospital in the county with a full-fledged laughter program.

MacDonald became interested in the idea several years ago as she attended oncology workshops and conferences. At one symposium, she watched with amazement as the speaker persuaded 350 oncologists "to stand on their chairs, turn in circles and flap their wings like turkeys." Afterward, as the meeting continued, she noted the participants' tone was upbeat; they seemed to have found new energy.

MacDonald hopes Hoag's cancer patients will react the same way. At the moment, the program's offerings are a bit thin. The oncology floor has a "laughter board"--a bulletin board of cartoons to which patients and their families are encouraged to add items.

She is also building a comedy library. So far she has several dozen books, two portable videotape recorders and 25 video selections--a mix of "I Love Lucy" and "Laurel and Hardy" reruns, some Eddie Murphy movies and a half dozen Pink Panther shorts.

MacDonald has ambitious plans. She has persuaded Corona del Mar animator Chuck Jones to lend some of his Bugs Bunny, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons to decorate the cancer ward in December. And Jones is expected to meet with cancer patients. What's more, when Hoag's 65,000-square-foot cancer center building opens in May or June, one conference room will be dedicated to laughter therapy. MacDonald is convinced patients and their families need it.

"I just think these people undergo so much aggressive treatment, they need to do something to feel better" about themselves, she said.

So the visit from the Pink Panther and the Panther's creator, producer and animator Friz Freling, is just a beginning, hospital officials said.

The Panther's bright mood also befell hospital staff. The head nurse prepared for the visit by cutting out large Pink Panther paw prints and posting them on the walls. Other nurses selected patients who were well enough to meet with the Panther and pose for pictures with him and Freling.

And when the Panther danced through the ward, cancer patients shook his paw and beamed. One, 75-year old Mary Forrester, effused: "Thank you. Thank you. What a beautiful Panther. I love it."

As the Panther finished his rounds, MacDonald proclaimed the visit a success. "This wasn't a children's thing," she stressed. "They will feel good up there all day."

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