1. The Diagnosis
In 1993 Saranne gave birth to Lauriel. "I was breastfeeding," she says. "One duct wasn't draining." Over a period of 18 months, Saranne's internist, general surgeon, and endocrinologist all kept reassuring her that what she had was merely an infection. Four and a half years later, a lump poked up that was visible through her shirt. "I went to a new doctor and said, 'Say it isn't so.'"

It was so. Saranne had an aggressive, stage 2 carcinoma.

"All I could think was, I gotta get to Blockbuster and get every comedy tape they have," she says. "I've got to laugh. If it worked for Norman Cousins, I might as well start right now."

In 1964 Cousins, then editor of the Saturday Review, was diagnosed with ankylosing him a one in 500 chance of full recovery. Cousins checked out of the hospital and into a hotel. He watched Candid Camera, laughed himself silly, saw his symptoms slowly disappear. He lived another 26 years. (Studies by Lee Berk, associate director of the Center for Neuroimmunology at Loma Linda University, support laughter's benefits, though no one claims it's a panacea.)

2. The Laughter Begins
Saranne's goal that first night was to get Lauriel to bed as early as possible so she could absorb what happened. "After a while, I put an Eddie Murphy tape in. Laughing, I couldn't think about crying," she says. "My body couldn't constrict. I got hooked on the experiment. Bill Cosby? The episode where his wife sends him down to make breakfast and the daughter wants chocolate cake? Cosby says, 'Well, chocolate cake has eggs and milk. It has flour. That's breakfast!' Now I was really laughing."

When Lauriel, who was 5, woke up, Saranne told her, "We're having chocolate doughnuts for breakfast. You'll be my humor buddy. We'll make a list of fun things that make us laugh and to two of them every day."

Six weeks after her diagnosis, smack in the middle of a vitriolic divorce, Saranne had her first surgery. A week later, she needed a second operation. When her doctors found even more malignant cells, she told her medical team, "That's it. No more surgery. Deal me the strongest chemo you've got."

3. The Breakthrough Moment
Adriamycin, a.k.a. the red devil, was prescribed. Saranne felt the instant the drug hit her brain: "At that moment my entire life made sense," she says. "As a kid, I'd raised money for muscular dystrophy. I studied broadcast journalism in college. I'd scouted and booked comics for prime-time TV. I'd been a news anchor and reporter, so I knew how to interview and write a press release. If you look at a life, every single thing seems scattered like stars until you have the map that shows you the constellations. It was my destiny," she says, "to redefine what it means to be a patient."

The day of her very first chemo treatment, Saranne sat with her head in a trash can. "I was throwing up, but I'd taken a notepad and I was writing, writing, writing. The whole charity came full-fledged. I even had the name, Comedy Cures. I knew there was a place for humor in tragedy. I'm not promising laughter is going to cure you, although I'm sure it helped me. Even if you're not actually physically better, joy and laughter make you feel better," Saranne says. "Life is hard, and society is hard, and if you don't consciously prepare yourself each day to practice wonder and joy, you get really good at practicing stress and pain and anger and anxiety and fear. You know," she adds, "kids laugh 300 to 400 times a day. But grown-ups? Only about 15."

4. Chemo and Creating Comedy Cures
Nine in the morning after her first red devil day, Saranne was on the phone. "I have a vision for a charity," she told a local attorney. He was a stranger, but she needed a lawyer and they had a mutual friend. She described the Laugh-A-Thons she wanted to produce—interactive performances that would include comic acts, joke telling, and education about humor's value. "We're going to transform the sound and look of a hospital," she told the lawyer. "Every patient will have the opportunity to laugh."

"You got it," he said.

An accountant volunteered to help Saranne get Comedy Cures nonprofit status. Somebody donated an office. Atlantic Telecom overnighted free phones. Comedy Cures was ready to roll.

"Don't you think you should wait till your treatment's over?" friends cautioned.

"I told them, 'If you stop me from doing this work, the cancer's winning,'" Saranne says. "Even when I was exhausted, I'd spend ten minutes a day pushing the dream forward."

5. Comedy Cures Today
Saranne knew she was onto something big. She began staging interactive Laugh-A-Thons for patients throughout the Northeast. But three months after she finished radiation, the cancer was growing with a vengeance and she was diagnosed with early stage 4 metastatic disease. Saranne needed yet another surgery and more chemo.

As soon as she was on her feet, Saranne took her programs on the road again. The goal of every show is 100 laughs. (The Comedy Cures brochure urges you to consult your doctor first if you have a hernia.) "If 200 people are in the audience, that's 20,000 laughs," Saranne says. Last year she performed at 54 live events for 34,000 people. After 9/11, the head of the Red Cross mental health division called and said, "Can you get here right away?" The next day, she was at Ground Zero, armed with small, handmade Wellness Joke Books for the relief workers and their families. The books are created by volunteers, including terminally ill patients, who donate jokes and cartoons. "You can go to someone who has a prognosis of a week or a month and say, 'Would you like to do community service?' People always say yes. They give back before they check out."

6. Saranne Today
Saranne keeps moving, keeps laughing. This fall she'll host a day of laughter for up to 3,100 children who lost a parent or caregiver on 9/11. But she recognizes only too well that reconciling yourself to loss is a process. "First you have to mourn what happened. Then you can give pain the freedom to leave. It's hard to find your laughter until you've found your pain."

In 2001 two suspicious nodes appeared in Saranne's neck. Western medicine, she decided, was not the only option. "In my system," she says, "chemo is Kool-Aid."

Everywhere she went, Saranne stood up and asked, "Can anyone get me an appointment with the Dalai Lama's doctor?"

One morning the phone rang. It was a woman who'd heard about Saranne from their mutual hairdresser. "You have an appointment at 1 p.m. on Monday with the Dalai Lama's doctor," she said.

"A modest little man in a saffron robe examined me," Saranne says. "He took my pulse. He gave me herbs for tea. 'You are very well,' he said. 'In three months, your scans will show shrinkage.'"

Today Saranne has no visible sign of disease. "I think the whole universe is conspiring to give me an incredible journey," she says. "Comedy Cures can't expand fast enough to meet the need. Time is the greatest gift—to have enough time to serve as many people as I'm supposed to serve. I'm a poster child for spunk."

For spunk. And for invention, moxie, and resilience.


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