Chronic Pain Is No Laughing Matter, Says Comedian

Women in Pain conference teaches nonconventional therapies based on mind.

August 18, 2011, 2:58 PM

Aug. 19, 2011— -- Kathy Buckley is a successful comedian who has guest starred on television shows like "Good Morning America" and "Touched By an Angel," but her life wasn't all that funny.

The stand-up comic has been hearing impaired since childhood. Her academic performance was so poor that in the second grade she was placed in a school for the mentally impaired.

"Talk about being slow," she quipped about her teachers.

At the age of 20, Buckley was run over by a Jeep while sunbathing on the beach and experienced years of chronic pain and intermittent paralysis in her legs. Then she was hit with cervical cancer -- twice.

Today, at 58, she has overcome years of chronic pain, mostly by changing the way she looks at it psychologically.

Buckley will be bringing her award-winning good humor to the fourth annual Women in Pain Conference, "Reframe Your Pain, Reclaim Your Life," on Sept. 16 in Los Angeles. The conference will examine the psychology of pain and using pain as a positive experience to give women the tools to "reclaim their lives."

"I will go in and make them laugh," said Buckley. "Do some stand up, based on truth from my life experience and then share some stories."

"I find that when people find pain in their lives, it becomes something bigger than it needs to be," she said. "Pain is something you have to find a way to live with and then move on."

The conference is sponsored by For Grace, an organization that seeks to increase awareness of the gender disparity women experience in the treatment of their pain.

It was founded in 2002 by Cynthia Toussaint, who suffered for 29 years with complex regional pain syndrome and chronic fatigue.

The conference will introduce women to nonconventional therapies to take control of their pain: mindful meditation and guided imagery, diet, exercise, yoga and even social media networking.

An estimated 80 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, according to the American Chronic Pain Association. Research also shows that women are hit more often and with greater intensity.

For Buckley, how one views pain is crucial to beating it. One of her pet peeves is hearing people say, "my cancer" or "my pain."

"Whoa, why psyche your brain out?" she said. "Pain is nothing but a visitor, not a permanent guest in your house."

Mind Affects Immune and Inflammatory Systems

Conference speaker Beth Darnall, a pain psychologist at Oregon Health and Science University, said the mind-body connection can shift the emotional response to pain.

She conducts research on how psychology influences the immune system and inflammatory processes.

"If we suddenly have an expectation every day that it will magically be different and then it's not, we are upset about it," she said. "There is a level of acceptance -- not to say it will be bad for the rest of my life, but accept that the pain is here, and now can I focus on the areas of control I do have around pain."

Darnall teaches how to engage the relaxation response, which is the "polar opposite" of the normal response to pain: elevated heart and respiration rates, constricted blood vessels, tight muscles and "agitated thinking."

She also urges women to take care of themselves.

"I help them learn to self-nurture," she said. "That's tough for women when they conceptualize nurturing as something they give, but to turn it inward can be very powerful in the healing process."

With awareness, many are able to manage better and sometimes even get off narcotics by "putting a container around the pain," she said.

Even though it sounds counterintuitive, gently bringing attention to a painful part of the body can help, according to Dr. Marvin Belzer, associate director of UCLA's Mindfulness Awareness Research Center.

"Instead of fighting, we simply notice what is happening, then we find somewhere that is not painful and somewhat pleasant, and a home base for our attention," he said. "We use our breath, unless its close to the pain, to gently go back and forth modeling a pendulum."

The method, mindful meditation, was developed in 1979 by University of Massachusetts scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn.

"We can reduce the intensity of pain," said Belzer. "We manage it better."

The mental response to pain can often "trigger intense suffering," Belzer said.

As for Buckley, she decided to use pain to help others after an empathic nurse responded to her after the accident.

"All she did was touch my forearm," said Buckley. "I didn't have hearing aids then, and I saw in her face: 'Are you alright honey? Can I get you anything?'"

"That was the spark of life for me and got me to move," she said. "Someone cares."

Buckley eventually became a massage therapist, using humor to heal. But comedy would be her future. In 1988, on a dare from a friend, she entered a contest -- "Stand Up Comic Take a Stand."

While on stage, she couldn't even hear the audience, only the vibration of their laughter from the stage floor, and she won.

Later, after being treated for cervical cancer, Buckley said she started to take control of her pain.

"Someone hit the up side of my head," she said. "Who is living this life, you or the doctor?"

She decided to take charge of her health through diet and exercise.

"Your body is supposed to be your best friend, not your worst enemy," said Buckley. "We work together."

Now she performs on behalf of nonprofit and educational organizations and serves as the national spokesperson for No Limits, a non-profit organization, theater group and school for deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

"It's not something I want to go back to," she said of the pain, "Most of the fear was not so much the pain, but knowing how to get back to where you once were. You have to change your mindset."