But it wasn’t until she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2019 that she discovered one of the most important resilience tools out there: laughter.
Johnson started chemotherapy and immunotherapy in January 2020, but after COVID-19 hit Minnesota in March, she suddenly found herself going to treatments and surgery alone since only patients were allowed into most clinics.
One night, on the eve of receiving a big dose of immunotherapy, she woke up feeling fearful. She made a video for her friends and family in which she told them: “I’m up. I’m scared.” She explained that when she was young, she used to tell herself stories whenever she was afraid. “I need you right now,” she said. “Will you tell me a story?”
They did. In the comments of her post, each person added a sentence or paragraph, building on the comment before it.
“That day, while I sat in the gray plastic chair, instead of watching the life-giving poisons drip into my blood stream, I watched my friends and family tell me a story,” Johnson explained at our recent virtual event, Oasis 2020: Hope and Possibility. “It was sweet and loving and really, really funny. So I started to laugh right there in the middle of this somber infusion center.”
Her laughter therapy immediately made a difference. Johnson had been closely tracking her symptoms for a clinical trial she was participating in, and on the night after her infusion, she knew she’d awaken with a fever of 104 degrees and experience all-over body pain at about 2 a.m. But when she woke up in the middle of the night, instead of thinking about the pain she’d soon be feeling, she thought about the humorous story her loved ones were telling her—and she laughed. In that moment, her laughter prompted her to come up with an idea for a series of funny online videos that she would later create.
“I decided to start a comedy show to see if it would save my life,” she said. She debuted her skits and sketches on a Facebook page called “Cancer and Coronavirus Comedy Show.”
The page features “Baby Monk”—a goofy alter-ego infant sharing “baby wisdom,” a hat fashion show, interviews with fellow comedians, and a variety of other laugh-out-loud content.
Johnson isn’t the only one who has harnessed the healing power of laughter. Writer and editor Norman Cousins is widely credited with revolutionizing the connection between mind and body in the 1970s when he was hospitalized with a crippling disease that doctors said would kill him. He fought it by finding all kinds of ways to make himself laugh and eventually made a full recovery.
Johnson, who is currently working on her 15th book, now asks herself one of two questions when she awakens each day: “If I’m feeling good, I ask myself: What would be the most fun thing to do today? And then I do it. If I’m not feeling good and nothing feels fun or funny, I ask myself: What would be the most nourishing thing I could do for myself today?”
Johnson, who completed her last round of chemotherapy in June 2020, is proof that laughter really is the best medicine.
Watch our virtual program to hear Johnson’s full presentation and to hear from other experts, speakers, and musicians while honoring the layers of loss we’ve experienced amid the pandemic.
Learn more about Johnson on the website of Heartwood Healing, an organization she founded that helps people create sustainable health and well-being. Its weekly e-newsletter provides strategies to reduce stress and boost well-being.