Humorologist Izzy Gesell Shows How the Power of Humor Helps People Cope with Cancer - New Movie “50/50” Addresses Similar Theme: What is the Role of Humor in Cancer?

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Just as screenwriter Will Reiser based the movie “50/50” on his own experience after being diagnosed with a tumor in his spine; when Gesell was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001, he was forced to take his own advice about the spirit-strengthening power of humor.

Cancer and the Healing Power of Play: A Prescription for Living Joyously with Presence, Acceptance, and Trust

Cancer and the Healing Power of Play: A Prescription for Living Joyously with Presence, Acceptance, and Trust

Laughter and happiness are important factors in the attempt to achieve and maintain a healthy personal and professional life

Humorologist/motivational speaker Izzy Gesell’s new workshop, “The Heart Behind the Chart: The Importance of Humor for Cancer Survivors, Friends, Family & Caregivers,” helps patients and their family, friends and co-workers understand that the diagnosis of a serious disease should not mean the death of a sense of humor. In his hilarious, heartwarming and hope-filled programs, sponsored by hospitals and caregiver organizations, Gesell makes the case for the powerful role of humor in dealing with cancer.

“Laughter and happiness are important factors in the attempt to achieve and maintain a healthy personal and professional life,” explains Gesell, who is also co-author of "Cancer and the Healing Power of Play: A Prescription for Living Joyously with Presence, Acceptance, and Trust" (G & T Press, 2008). “A cancer diagnosis affects more than the disease's host. Friends, family and caregivers are all included in the new world disorder. In my workshop I give all the stakeholders permission to laugh in the face of crisis and tragedy.”

In fact, Gesell points out that the new movie, “50/50,” confronts similar issues. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, whose best friend (played by Seth Rogen) attempts to mask his discomfort with Adam’s cancer diagnosis with somewhat inappropriate humor. Much of the movie’s comedy plays off of how people react to Adam’s illness. Just as screenwriter Will Reiser based “50/50” on his own experience in 2005 after he was diagnosed with a tumor in his spine; when Gesell was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001, he was forced to take his own advice about the spirit-strengthening power of humor.

Instead of allowing inconsiderate and inappropriate comments to bother him, Gesell found it helpful to use such statements in funny ways. He gives an example of people who often mixed up the words prostate (the male gland) and prostrate (to lie face down). After a number of times correcting them, he decided to “see what would happen if I had my prostrate out. I’d say, ‘Yes I did, now I can’t lie down.’ Humor takes a ‘what if’ situation and extrapolates it,” Gesell explains. He also liked to find funny ways to transform annoying platitudes, such as “There’s a silver lining in every cloud.” In this case, he realized the silver lining of cancer was that he could get away with certain behaviors that would otherwise result in negative consequences. “If I was late for an appointment or forgot to call someone back, cancer was a great excuse,” he says.

Gesell believes humor is greatly misunderstood, which causes people to feel afraid to talk about happy things in front of a person facing a serious illness or other crisis. In his workshops, Gesell teaches how humor works, so anyone can bring more joy and happiness into their lives, no matter what the situation. “It’s immensely helpful to understand when humor is appropriate, and how we can use and understand humor to deal with things we can’t control,” he explains. “Humor, one of our most under-utilized personal resources, can boost morale, facilitate communication, stimulate creativity and help manage stress. It also can help us survive the unknown, deal with fear, and bring joyful moments to enhance the quality of life, however long that life is. I truly believe there is a way for everyone – not just Hollywood actors and screenwriters – to inject humor into the subject of cancer.”

Gesell teaches audiences how to bring humor into their life on a daily basis. For instance, three of his basic tips for families and survivors include:

1. Pay attention when laughter comes naturally, when something unexpectedly funny happens.

2. Whether you are the patient or the patient’s friend or family member, figure out what makes you laugh. Pay attention to things you find funny and use those things as a go-to source. If you’re going to visit someone who is seriously ill and you know she’s a big Steve Correll fan, you might bring a DVD of television series, “The Office.”

3. Use symbols and momentos in evident ways. For instance, Gesell used to wear Groucho glasses on stage when he performed stand-up comedy, because at the time he had a moustache that, with his own glasses, made him look like he was wearing Groucho glasses. “When I had cancer and was in the hospital, someone brought me Groucho glasses. This greatly boosted my spirits every time I looked at them on my hospital night table,” recalls Gesell.

Izzy Gesell M.ED, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional) is an “organizational alchemist” who helps people navigate their internal logjams and emerge more confident, spontaneous and effective. Through keynotes, breakouts, coaching and facilitated sessions, Gesell offers imaginative, intuitive and immediately useful insights and programs. He delivers meaningful material in an enjoyable way. Among the first to use Improv Theater concepts as tools for personal and organizational learning, he is the author of Playing Along: Group Learning Activities Borrowed From Improvisation Theater, a co-author of Humor Me: America’s Funniest Humorists on the Power of Laughter, a co-author of Cancer and the Healing Power of Play and a contributor of a chapter on improvisation as a facilitation tool in the IAF Group Facilitators Handbook. Clients include NASA, American Institute of Architects, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Cargill and many regional and national associations. Gesell was raised in Brooklyn NY. A former stand-up comic and special education teacher, he earned a BA in Psychology, an MS in Education and a P…. that’s 1/3 of a PhD and now lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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