Queen's University

Laughter is the best medicine

Diagnosed with a rare and often fatal lung disease, Catherine Lawrence, Artsci’80, reacted the way she always does when facing adversity – she fought back ... and laughed while doing it.

Catherine LawrenceThe “Green Eggs and LAM" fund,
started by Catherine, is one of the
ways she's using laughter to battle
her disease. Photo by Caley Taylor
Catherine LawrenceThe “Green Eggs and LAM" fund,
started by Catherine, is one of the
ways she's using laughter to battle
her disease. Photo by Caley Taylor

In 2006, when Catherine Lawrence’s doctors presented her with test results that explained why she was short of breath, they imparted two bits of life-altering information. One detailed the severity of her disease. The other offered advice on how to live with it.

Catherine learned she has Lymphangioleiomyomatosis, or LAM, a rare and often fatal lung ailment that’s progressive and has no cure. LAM affects women of childbearing age. Its main symptoms fatigue, shortness of breath with exertion, chest pain, and coughing. Sufferers need a continuous supply of supplemental oxygen. Sometimes a single- or double-lung transplant is an option. Either can extend a LAM sufferer’s life.

Doctors also advised Catherine how to cope with her disease. Their best advice? “They told me just to live my life,” she recalls.

What they didn’t realize was that Catherine is no typical mid-career women. A lawyer-turned-laughter coach, she has always tackled life with a rare vitality, and so she had no intention of changing her ways. Crewing on a tall ship, heading up the first Canadian Women’s Elephant Polo team in Nepal, and attending the NASA-affiliated Advanced Adult Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, are just a few of her past adventures. Battling LAM would be her next one.

With that in mind, Catherine began reading everything she could find about LAM. She also began compiling a binder of information – what she calls her “plan.” It includes studies, medical articles, advice she gets from people, contacts, and her correspondence with doctors.

This stuff is hard work and it’s serious, but I can take myself lightly doing it.

Catherine also was intent on tackling her disease with the help of her signature sense of humour. (She always keeps a rubber chicken at hand, while she records a cheery guffaw on her answering machine daily). When she set up a fund to raise money and awareness of LAM, which she dubbed it the “Green Eggs and Lam Fund.”

Explains Catherine, “I can’t do this if it’s not fun. This stuff is hard work and it’s serious, but I can take myself lightly doing it.”

However, when a surprise birthday party friends threw for her raised $120,000, Catherine knew it was no joking matter. She wanted to use the money as effectively as possible in her battle against LAM.

She and Amy Farber, the founder of the LAM Treatment Alliance in the U.S. last spring organized what they called the Lung Destruction Summit at Toronto’s MaRS, a non-profit innovation centre. Their hope was that putting together the biggest experts in the field world-wide would help them combine their knowledge and possibly find a cure for the disease as well as accelerate an understanding of other common serious diseases from cancer to emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Its key question was this: “If money was no object, but time was in short supply, what would be critical to learn about lung destruction, modelling, repair and regeneration in LAM in order to advance the most high-impact clinically relevant interventions for women now living with the disease?”

The Green Eggs and Lam fund financed the entire summit, researchers’ expenses, and even the kick-off party. Researchers praised both the summit and the efforts of Catherine and her team, lauding the sessions as being “intense and productive.” Says Catherine, “There were 30 really brilliant minds in the room, and for eight hours it was amazing.”

She knows time is of the essence in finding a treatment or cure for LAM, for her and for others who have the disease. “Those of us who have LAM are not in remission,” she notes. “Time is of the essence [to us], and so researchers have to be in our hurry.”

Catherine draws hope from all of the connections and the dialogue between experts from around the world. She’s optimistic about future information sharing. “My dream has always been that the money we raise will go directly to science at a cellular level and that it make a direct impact.”

Classmates and other friends of Catherine can contact her via email at survivalofthefunniest@gmail.com.     

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2010-01-27
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