Cancer survivors use laughter to boost their health

  • Wellness
  • Sunday, 07 Aug 2016

Laugh and the whole world laughs with you Photo: AFP

Very few things get Sukhveer Kaur down.

As a laughter therapist, she’s always going “Hee, hee, ha, ha, ho, ho!”, and gets participants to laugh out loud, as if there’s no woe in the world.

No matter what life throws at her, she uses her inner spring to bounce back up.

“Even during a bad car accident, I was laughing and the other party was getting angrier and angrier. We were both in the wrong, but it just annoyed him terribly that I continued to laugh,” recalls Sukhveer, 51, a former nurse and cancer survivor.

Her journey has been a tumultuous one she is willing to share.

At 31, right after getting married to Daljit Singh, she hit primary menopause. The word shock couldn’t describe her reaction to the news.

“It was stressful because the community kept asking me ‘Is there any good news?’ or ‘When is the baby coming?’. My husband was very supportive despite me telling him to marry someone else. It took me some time to accept, but now I realise I’ve got children all over the world. That’s why God didn’t give me kids of my own because he wanted me to reach out to others,” shares the petite woman.

Sukhveer stands at barely five feet, and her pants sweep the floor as she walks, but she states matter-of-factly, that it’s a result of osteoporosis. She has shrunk more than three inches in two decades.

“But I’m still cute!” she chirps impishly.

Sukhveer and Daljit have walked the cancer journey together. Photo: The Star/Revathi Murugappan
Sukhveer and Daljit have walked the cancer journey together. Photo: The Star/Revathi Murugappan

In 2008, she was experiencing gastric pains, which progressed to headaches and neck pain. After a series of tests, doctors diagnosed her with carcinoid tumour, a specific form of neuroendocrine carcinoma that mostly develops in the gastrointestinal tract, in organs such as the stomach or intestines, or in the lungs.

Although it was detected early, the tumours had rapidly spread, and doctors had to remove the stomach by making a long horizontal incision, to perform a Roux-en-Y, where a small part of the stomach is used to create a new stomach pouch, roughly the size of an egg. The pouch is connected directly to the middle portion of the small intestine, bypassing the rest of the stomach and the upper portion of the small intestine.

For someone who loves food and was initially told she’d have to be on a liquid diet for a long time, Sukhveer’s world crumbled – but her family crumbled first.

She says, “I was always looked upon as a strong woman, so I’d cry alone. But I stayed positive. The challenges came after surgery. I developed Dumping’s Syndrome, and I would have diarrhoea 11 times an hour! I was so afraid to eat and dropped from 82kg to 50kg in a few months.

“I remember asking my mother to say a prayer for me. I didn’t want to live like this, but she kept telling me to be a strong woman. She was my pillar of strength. My social life suffered because I couldn’t go out or eat with friends.”

Throughout the episode and though she would throw tantrums, Sukhveer tried to maintain her sense of humour. During her follow-up treatments, she would draw a smiley face on her abdomen area to lift her spirits, and make the doctors laugh.

“Laugh, and the whole world laughs with you!”

Eventually, she started eating small amounts of solid food, but when she overindulges, her blood pressure will rise. Once, she passed out.

“I can’t feel hunger like normal people, but my body tells me that I’m undernourished when I start to shake.”

Just when things were getting better, she had a wound breakdown in 2010 and developed a fungal infection from lack of circulation in the incision area. That led to another major surgery and a three-week hospital stay.

Sukhveer says, “That’s when I told my mother I wanted to do laughter therapy once I was discharged. I knew it was my calling to make others laugh. It gives me a sense of contentment. It wasn’t easy, but as my sifu (teacher) taught, ‘Fake it till you make it’. I began offering classes for cancer support groups.”

As word grew of her popular sessions, she started laughing her way to factories, schools and community centres around the country.

Alas, barely six months into the second surgery, Sukhveer’s mother passed away, and eight months later, her husband was diagnosed with left kidney cancer.

Overcome with anger and grief, she succumbed to darkness.

“I would get angry for no reason because when I went home, my mum was no longer there and I could only see pain in my father’s eyes. So I forced him to come for one of my sessions, and slowly, he learnt how to laugh again.

“The loss of my mum was unbearable and I became depressed, but I picked myself up, just in time to face another journey – I call this a blessing. When my husband was diagnosed with cancer, being strong was my only choice,” says the Penangite.

Daljit, a design engineer, offers, “My whole world came crashing down when I was diagnosed, and I could not accept it because I was fit and healthy. It was only darkness I could see ahead with no reverse gear for me. The only question that was running in my mind was, why me now? Earlier, it was my wife. Was there something wrong that both of us had done previously?”

The side effects of chemotherapy hit Daljit hard and he almost gave up treatment halfway, but Sukhveer urged him to continue.

She says, “I thought it would be easier for him because he had witnessed me go through it, but that wasn’t the case. He felt betrayed because he is a health freak – he jogs, hikes, doesn’t smoke or drink, and doesn’t take ghee or butter.

“I told him we have to walk this journey together. Sometimes, I like to have fun, just to test his patience. I dance around when he’s deep in prayers to distract him! That would make him laugh.”

Sukhveer and Daljit do outreach work under the umbrella of Himmat Support Group, which they founded in 2009, with a vision to touch many lives, counsel and be there for someone who needs it at a particular time in life.

In 2012, Daljit quit his job to follow his wife around the country and take care of logistics issues.

The couple rely on their savings and live frugally. “We don’t believe in wasting money buying unnecessary items. A lot of well- meaning friends tell us to buy supplements, alkaline water and what-nots for our health.

“Positive thinking has sustained us and we’re both cancer-free now.

“We are a proof of rainbows and sunshine after every storm. Never give up,” says Sukhveer.

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