A RECOVERING cancer patient has told how the power of laughter helped him through his darkest days during his gruelling battle with the disease.
Paul Neale, from Kidderminster, is now a volunteer at the hospital that treated him – Worcestershire Acute Hospitals – where he shares stories of his journey from being diagnosed with bowel cancer to his recovery.
Paul (62) recently spoke at a Wellbeing Event for patients Living with and Beyond Cancer hosted by Worcestershire Acute Hospitals. The event was attended by NHS staff, patients and their families. Part of the event was a group session led by Aaron Betesta of NHS-backed Laughtercise; a wellbeing organisation that specialises in delivering fun, feel-good sessions for corporate teams and groups of people.
A recent study on the effects of humour therapy – conducted by experts in China – found that it can be a crucial tool in mental health care. When we laugh, the brain releases endorphins which relax the whole body and, when people are in a small group, they’re up to 30 times more likely to laugh.
Paul says that laughter – and a positive outlook on life – helped him come to terms with his cancer diagnosis.
“For me, it was just over five weeks from seeing my GP with what I now know were symptoms of bowel cancer, to being operated on,” said Paul.
“In my heart, I knew what was coming…the actual confirmation of bowel cancer came as something of a relief. The hardest part was the two weeks in-between having the tests done and getting the diagnosis from my consultant.
“From speaking to others with cancer, they too have found those weeks tough. Your head is all over the place and people just don’t know what to say to you.”
Paul found that creating a conversation around the stigma associated with cancer on social media and making light of the situation helped.
“Cancer affects one in two of us, according to statistics,” said Paul, “and it’s still talked about in hushed tones.
“We need to be more open and transparent – and I found that making time for myself without feeling guilty helped a lot, even if it was just going for a coffee with friends or taking a long shower.
“I do share the story though of, after taking a long shower myself, accidently using Anusol on my toothbrush instead of toothpaste, and foot spray under my armpits to raise a smile.”
Laughtercise, which works with NHS staff across the UK, Amazon, Loughborough University and the British Heart Foundation amongst many, began in 2021 with online team-building sessions for key workers going through the pandemic.
Founder Aaron Betesta has since delivered nearly £10,000 worth of sessions – for free – to staff in third-sector organisations and his sessions have been praised by participants, with 70% of NHS staff claiming to feel less stressed after taking part.
He said: “We’re proud to work with some incredible organisations and meeting people such as Paul is humbling.
“There was a great atmosphere in the room, and it was amazing to see so many people who have gone through so much, enjoying the release that comes with smiling and laughing.”
As well as working with Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, Laughtercise have also held sessions for the University Hospitals of Derby & Burton NHS Trusts and Sandwell & West Birmingham NHS Trust where Aaron met patient Ron and his wife, Linda.
He said: “Ron is living with prostate cancer and has also had three heart attacks; he’s a true fighter. He was smiling and laughing all the way through the session, which was good to see.”
Since setting up the business in 2021, more than 14,000 people have participated in a session across 84 countries around the world.
As well as working with businesses, Laughtercise also host sessions for schools and hen parties where participants take part in games and activities that naturally get groups smiling and laughing together.
Ben Furlow is the Macmillan Living With & Beyond Cancer project manager for Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust. He said: “I’d like to thank Paul for sharing his story and Aaron for helping every patient and staff member leave the session with a smile on their face.
“He was brilliant; very engaging with everyone in the room and it was a great way to end our Health & Wellbeing Event.”