“Participants don’t check their sense of humor at the front door.”
So goes the response to one of the FAQs in the “Facts About Us” section of the Cancer Support Community of Philadelphia website. Indeed, this organization — begun as the Wellness Community in 1993 — assumed its current name when it merged in 2009 with Gilda’s Club, named after comedian Gilda Radnor.
Before her death from cancer, Radnor sought to make the journey bearable for her and for others through laughter. So it’s no surprise that a favorite annual activity sponsored by CSCP is a Jokefest — simply the opportunity for people to come together to share their favorite jokes.
As Kathleen Coyne, CSCP’s program director, explains, while the center has a serious purpose, to foster a “sense of community” and to “relieve stress” among cancer patients and caregivers, it’s also important to “bring people together for fun events as well as learning events.”
This past year’s Jokefest offered both.
Held every winter, each Jokefest has a theme. For example, one year’s event, held on Valentine’s Day, called upon participants to declare their love for their partners, many of whom were there. This year’s event offered instruction in Yiddish with a light touch. The master of ceremonies listed several Yiddish words and their English translations and then invited joke tellers to use these words in their jokes. Such words as gelt, goneff, mensch and kvetch, among others, were included in the competition.
Both Jewish and non-Jewish joke tellers quickly got into the spirit of the occasion and happily seasoned their jokes (including those from other backgrounds, such as Irish humor) with many of the listed words. The winner? A tie — with all awarded scratch-off lottery tickets as prizes, as well as snacks of cake, cookies, chips and pretzels.
The festivities received high praise from those present. Sharon Dunoff of Havertown, a frequent participant in CSCP’s meditation program, came prepared with “a binder full of jokes” that she’d saved up and was happy to find an occasion to try them out on a receptive audience.
Philadelphia resident Rochelle Cohen had read about the benefits of laughter in Norman Cousins’ book, Anatomy of an Illness, in which the author cited the role of comedy and laughter in his recovery from a serious inflammatory illness. “There are actual biochemical benefits in laughing,” she says. She calls herself a cancer “thriver,” enjoying many of the programs CSCP offers, including ballroom dancing, zumba, yoga and Pilates.
She enjoyed the Yiddish theme, noting that “I grew up in a Jewish household, and my parents spoke it when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were saying.”
Using humor to cope with cancer, she explained, was part of her culture. Her Russian ancestors, she said, experienced a great deal that was unhappy, and making jokes helped lighten the suffering.
Dick Weselblet of Lower Merion summed up the feeling of those present: “There’s humor all around us if we look for it, and if we don’t see humor in life, we miss what life is.”
For more information, visit the Cancer Support Community of Philadelphia at: www.cancersupport-phila.org 
Diane McManus is a seasoned writer specializing in health issues and is also an adjunct faculty member at Community College of Philadelphia. This article appeared originally in a special section, "Fighting Cancer."