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Check Up: Harnessing humor to cope with cancer

Facing a double mastectomy and hysterectomy, Eva Moon eased the anxiety with a limerick: I've just had a genetic test

Facing a double mastectomy and hysterectomy, Eva Moon eased the anxiety with a limerick:

I've just had a genetic test

And I'm feeling a little depressed

It's not just because

I'll have menopause

But I wasn't quite done with my breasts

Humor isn't touted much in clinical trials or in FDA approvals, but when it comes to cancer, laughter is good medicine, according to Moon.

A 58-year-old performing artist from Redmond, Wash., with fiery red hair and a sultry voice, Moon spoke at the Eighth Annual Joining FORCEs Conference in Philadelphia last week. FORCE is a group dedicated to providing support and resources for people affected by hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

In 2011, Moon was hit with the news that she carried the BRCA1 genetic mutation; 39 percent of women with this mutation will develop ovarian cancer by age 70; for breast cancer, the number is 55 to 65 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Moon learned she had the mutation when her mother was dying from a BRCA-related cancer.

"I cried rivers of tears," she said. But she fought back and underwent a series of major preventative surgeries. Post-recovery, Moon harnesses humor for coping with hard times, and she is teaching others to do the same.

"Humor can relieve stress and speed healing," she said. She might be on to something.

"A brief period of laughter does increase natural killer-cell activity," said Mary Bennett, director of the Western Kentucky University School of Nursing, who studies the effects of laughter on immune-system activity.

Humor can also decrease pain and improve mood, said Stephen Rose, gynecological oncologist at the University of Wisconsin. He has studied how patients use humor to cope with recurrent ovarian cancer.

Moon sees humor as a helpful escape.

She made this point clear when she started her 80-minute presentation by getting the attendees to engage in a cutthroat tournament of rock-paper-scissors.

She also shared her parody of Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham, with lines such as "I do not like this BRCA gene, I would rather intervene."

Moon keeps finger puppets in her purse at all times - a clown and a bee - and she encourages others to live by her "nine-step program to find your sense of humor when everything is going to hell."

Steps include "looking for the funny in everyday life," such as turning the box of pineapple upside-down cake mix upside down in the grocery aisle, avoiding people who tend to be downers, and "faking it till you make it."

"Believing in your sense of humor is an act of faith," she said, especially when things get rough. Reframing your situation to get a lighter perspective can also help. That tip helped Moon when she got her surgically reconstructed breast caught in a windshield wiper while washing her car.

Lastly, she reminded attendees: "Be gentle with yourself." Grief needs to be expressed, too, she said, and crying is OK if it helps.

Moon now has a musical show called The Mutant Diaries: Unzipping My Genes about her journey with BRCA1, a subject she once swore she'd never write about. At the FORCE conference, she performed "Ta Ta, Tatas," a song from the show, which discusses a mastectomy.

There once was a mutant who laughed

These rhymes are not much of a craft

But I simply refuse

To give in to the blues

Just because nature gave me the shaft.