No Prescription Necessary: Learning to Laugh with Lymphangioleiomyomatosis

January 21st, 2008 

Catherine Lawrence is a comedian who founded Survival of the Funniest a one-woman laugh factory for corporate and special events. A former attorney, but no straightjacket, she promotes ‘laughter as the best medicine’ for coping with the challenges of the day. But recently Catherine put this prescription to the test. She was diagnosed with Lymphangioleiomyomatosis (lim - fan’- je - o - Li’- o - mi’- o - ma - to’- sis), or LAM, a progressive lung disease with no known cause or cure that typically strikes women in the prime of their lives. Now she is running as fast as she can to help find a cure. Mary Ann Colihan reports.

Even grueling workouts with her personal trainer can’t stop the laughs.At forty-nine, Catherine Lawrence is exceptionally fit. She’s a marathon runner who realized something was wrong when her long-distance training left her winded. A year and a half ago she was diagnosed with an incurable lung disease that has an almost unpronounceable name.

“Lymphangioleiomyomatosis. When I first heard I thought supercalifragilisticexbealidocious I tried on spell check, I did, and it said no spelling suggestions and I thought no kidding. “

Lymphangioleiomyomatosis, is known as LAM for short. It often goes undiagnosed or is misdiagnosed. It’s caused when a type of muscle cell spreads throughout the body and collects in the lungs and kidneys. The abnormal cells clump together into cysts that block air passages and interrupt blood flows to the lungs. Lawrence was fortunate to find physicians who even knew about the disease.

“Well the Doctors told me after an extended version of tests that they were ruling out asthma and other things. They told me I had this rare lung disease. The CT scan was really the thing that confirmed it because the xrays aren’t so useful because they are cysts in the lungs.”

There are fewer than 100 LAM patients in Canada and almost no medical research here on the disease. Lawrence found an American research program at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland - that pays for Canadians to participate in this study.

“I was told and it’s true that they have collected a huge database on woman with LAM. And so they are very knowledgeable about LAM and it was an opportunity to go and establish a baseline for me where my various test results were. The people there were fantastic so I have an opportunity to go back in February to see how I’m doing compared to last year.”

To stay in peak condition Lawrence uses acupuncture and works out several times a week. She rests when her chest hurts and she can’t run or swim very far any more. But she does save some breath for her comedy monologues. Just off the treadmill she slips into her schtick and regales me and her personal trainer, Brett Kelleher, about the night before at a book club event when her mishap with candles starts a fire in a powder room. The hostess extinguished the flaming towels in the toilet.

For Lawrence laughter is a potent weapon against disease. A decade ago she started her business Survival of the Funniest to teach and promote the restorative power of laughter in the workplace and beyond.

“I’m trying to laugh as much or more than ever. Intellectually we all know how important it is to laugh and how our body feels after we have that deep gut belly laugh. Every day I start my day with a forced laugh on my voicemail and that kicks in to real laughter and just a wonderful chemical reaction in my body says OK, I’m here, (laughs) another day (laughs) - the department of vitality is open for business. laughs”

An oxygen machine has a regular beat that sounds like a brush tap on a cymbal. Marsha Cohen is a doctor and president of the LAM Canada. She is on oxygen 24 hours a day. Dr. Cohen was diagnosed with LAM in 1995 and at sixty is one of the oldest LAM patients in Canada. She says while she doesn’t think a cure will be found in her lifetime, she hopes that Catherine Lawrence may still benefit.

“From 1995 where people essentially knew nothing about LAM barely heard of it - to 2007 - we now know the cause of LAM scientists have found the gene. And based on basic science research now we have founded the first drug trial of a new therapy for LAM. This is unheard of for any of these other orphan diseases. It’s really quite miraculous.”

This year the first clinical trial of Rapamycin - a drug used in transplants to prevent organ rejection but a new drug for LAM, will get under way in Toronto, Osaka Japan and at five centers across the U.S. Catherine Lawrence is actually considered “too healthy” to be part of the trial. But that has not stopped her from putting her energy into helping to find a cure. Family and friends touched Lawrence deeply at her surprise birthday party - turned fundraiser that netted more than $100,000 for the LAM Canada Foundation.

“I’ve asked that the Fund be called green eggs and LAM in keeping with an approach that involves thinking outside the box a little bit and not losing our sense of humour around this very difficult disease.”

She wants the Green Eggs and LAM fund to go towards cutting edge research at the cellular level of the disease. And Lawrence plans to use her comic abilities to create a vigorous cardiovascular workout that will be good for anyone’s lungs

“William Fry who is a pioneer in laughter research from Stanford University says that 100 deep belly laughs are the aerobic equivalent of ten minutes on the rowing machine - so there you go exercise and laughter, it all works. ’’