Tara Geraghty and TEDxAsburyPark host Ben Freeberg talk about “Choosing Fun in the Chaos of Cancer,” which will be presented at TEDxAsburyPark on May 18, 2019.

The following is an excerpt from the interview.  To read and hear the full interview, CLICK HERE

Ben Freeberg: Hello, everyone, and welcome to Expert Open Radio.  I am Ben Freeberg and we are the hosts of TEDxAsburyPark. Today we are here with expert speaker, Tara Geraghty, who is a speaker at this year’s TEDx conference on May 18, 2019. Welcome, Tara.

Tara Geraghty: Hi! Thanks for having me.

Ben Freeberg: We’re really excited to speak with you today and also hear about your talk. We’re going to be talking today about  how to make cancer fun, and that’s what Tara’s going to dive into, which is just something very personal to me as well.

Tara Geraghty:   When people find out you have cancer, whether it’s an adult or a child, in my case it was my child… my 3 and a half year old… when it happens to you, it’s that state of shock…

Ben Freeberg: Yes.

Tara Geraghty:   And I don’t know what your experience was, but I remember feeling like I was almost levitating out of my body,  having an out-of-body experience for a couple of weeks.

Ben Freeberg: A hundred per cent.

Tara Geraghty:   I remember sitting there and the doctors were talking to me and I’d be looking at my hands, going, “I see my hands, they’re no longer attached to me.”  I don’t know if it’s personality or life experience, but when I had that diagnosis…my daughter was three and a half, I had just come out of a crazy, horrific domestic violence divorce…my whole life felt chaotic.  I felt like I was in the midst of chaos surrounding me. Which is why the TEDxAsburyPark topic this year resonated with me. And here I am… just struggling trying to put my life back together, and we get this diagnosis, and my response was “Okay, I have no control.” When you’re in chaos, you have no control over anything. And particularly when you have a child with cancer, as a parent I feel you have even less control. I can’t choose how she’s going to respond to treatment, I can’t choose if she’s going to have a good attitude or a bad attitude, I can’t choose if she’s going to give it her best or give up. Even less control than if it was myself, and I just felt “Well, I have no control over anything at all. I’ve completely hit rock bottom, so my only choice is to sit here and cry and be depressed or make this as fun as I can. “

In our culture, I think that when when you’re in a place of chaos, or something that should be seen with sadness and grief and worry and all of that…it’s almost offensive…people get offended if you choose the fun.  And that’s so interesting, because we’re totally fine, if I said, “You know what, I’m gonna go and I’m going to pray about this, and I’m gonna meditate about that,”–and I did both of those things quite often. And those are okay. It’s great if you want to ground yourself and get in touch with your spirituality, it’s great to use that as a coping skill, but if you laugh about it…ooh, you know … that’s offensive.

Ben Freeberg: Yes. And it also sounds like it’s proven out… can you share some more details on some of the experiments and thought leadership pieces you’ve read about it?

Tara Geraghty: When my daughter had cancer, my background was a little bit different than most people. My background is actually in theatre and in improv, and my first job out of college was with a children’s theatre company. So I was taking a lot of the stuff that I was trained in and creating these really fun experiences for my daughter. And  we just had, it sounds crazy to say, we had a lot of fun. And the nurses would hang out in our room, and people wanted to stop by, and I thought “Why are you guys always in our room?” And they would tell us, “It’s different in here” and I had never been in any other child’s room at the hospital, so I thought “Doesn’t everybody do this, doesn’t everybody throw a party?”  And they said “No,” so when I was preparing for my TED submission, I said okay, I know what I’ve done but, let me see what the science is behind this. You know this is more than just “Okay, it feels good.” And so I started to do research through the US Library of Medicine, and I was shocked. I just put in and searched “laughter” and over 2,200 medical studies came back. And they go back to the early thirteenth century, where doctors were using laughter to distract patients…

Ben Freeberg: Oh my god.

Tara Geraghty: ..from pain.  Obviously, during my talk I get more into the science behind this because this isn’t just something that feels good.  There’s actually a lot of data to back up the benefit of using laughter in times of chaos as a coping skill. And my favorite one is they did a study where people who had botox, and physically could not frown because of their botox, were less depressed.

Ben Freeberg: That is so interesting.

Tara Geraghty:   What happens to your body physically when you smile and you’re releasing dopamines and these feel-good hormones, is it  increases your pain tolerance. Think about how painful some cancer treatments can be. When you’re physically laughing, your muscles relax for up to a full 45 minutes afterwards. And that allows you to withstand pain more. It boosts the killer cells that fight infection. So here I am reading through all of this thinking “Wow, I was doing this for me and my mental state and my daughter’s mental state,” and I had no idea it was actually producing all of these really positive, healthy, effects in her body.

Ben Freeberg: That’s so good to hear. So what ended up happening with you, and with people spending time in the room?  Is that something where you’ve formalized that whole making fun thing? Or are you acting as a resource for parents to do that themselves, or both?

Tara Geraghty: Just so everybody knows, my daughter is going to be thirteen this April. And  she is just this amazing…I call her my miracle kid…she’s a survivor. She actually had stage 4 high risk neuroblastoma.

Ben Freeberg: Oh god.

Tara Geraghty:   She had a low survival rate. And she’s doing so well…she’s doing well in school and it’s just…I’m living every day in gratitude and I think that most people who go through a really horrific cancer experience come out and do so. Afterwards, everyone said to me you need to write a book, and I would think, “I’m not going to write a book.”  First of all, who would even read this? This is ridiculous… doesn’t everybody do this? And I think that when we do something really natural…when it’s really natural for us, we tend to discount or discredit that it’s not natural for everybody. I would think “Oh, that’s ridiculous.” And also when you get out of the chaos of cancer, you want to go back to your regular nonchaotic world. And I kept meeting families who were almost paralyzed in this state of fear.  I would connect with other families and I saw that they do not have these tools and they don’t know what to do. They feel helpless and the more I started to see that, I thought, I have an obligation to start talking about this and to share this with other people and to help. And what’s been curious for me, Ben, is it hasn’t even been just cancer families. I had a woman I met, whose granddaughter had all sorts of medical issues and had surgeries as a child and was having some issues with eating and things like that.  And we were talking about, “How can you start to infuse fun into this little girl?”

So my experience is with cancer, but I think it’s relevant for any parent.  Every child has to go to a doctor even if it’s just once a year for a well-child visit. Or they have to go to a dentist or you have to go to the emergency room.   I saw a mom post that her son was in the emergency room and how she was freaking out and I’m thinking “Oh my gosh, you know, our children feed off of our energy.”

And they look to us, right? When a little kid falls, what’s the first thing they do? They look up to the grown-ups to see, “Okay should I start crying?”   Was this really bad? Are you scared or not?

Ben Freeberg: Yes.

Tara Geraghty: So if you look at the little kid and you start laughing and you say “That was silly…” then all of a sudden you can kind of see their face relieved a little bit, like “Oh, I guess I’m not really hurt, you’re right, that was silly.”

Ben Freeberg: Yeah, and that is so good to hear and it’s definitely coming through you.  Can you quickly share a little bit about the website you have? I was just on the tab “What People Are Saying” and it very much seems like that point is getting across to some of those parents.

Tara Geraghty: Yeah, so the website is makingcancerfun.com and most people remember making-cancer-fun because they go, “Huh?” or they do a second take.

Ben Freeberg: Yup.

Tara Geraghty: And there is a book. I’m just starting to build some resources and I have some other things that are coming out during this year. During the holidays, I had done a series of videos for parents on  how to get through the holidays when you’re in the childhood cancer world. You know, tips, things like that. Even things like what to give somebody when their kid is in the hospital because people want to be generous and they don’t know what to give. And I’m just starting to be very open and share the videos and the stories and my thing is that if someone can take one idea, or one tip, and change that experience or have a fun day with their child, how is that going to change and ripple out?

And just for the siblings. I was reading a study they had done at  Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia where  up to about 30% of parents and siblings suffer from post-traumatic stress after a childhood cancer diagnosis. And what was crazy about that to me was that’s a higher rate than the actual patient. Even just looking at the siblings and asking ‘How you can make it fun when the siblings have to see each other? And what can you do to empower that child?’

Ben Freeberg: Totally.

Tara Geraghty: And I talk more about this during my TED talk, using examples outside of the cancer world. What happens when we feel like we have control? It changes our experience in a very positive way.

Ben Freeberg: Yes.

Tara Geraghty: The chaos of cancer, while it feels so out of control, it reminds me of when I first started hearing about the topic of chaos. A tornado… everything is spinning and it’s dangerous, chaotic, and out of control. And it’s not safe, you feel unsafe in a tornado. Obviously.  But where is the safest place to be? In the eye of the tornado. Right, that’s where it’s still.

So you’re in this diagnosis of cancer, you’ve got this tornado spinning around you. You’re in the eye. And now you get to choose how you’re going to be in that eye. If you’re going to step into that chaos and get hurt or if you’re going to stand there and say “I’m going to laugh in the face of this chaos. And I’m going to choose to stay here in the eye. The chaos can be around me, but I’m not going to allow it to hurt me.”

Ben Freeberg: And that is such a good way to approach anything, any difficult situation. So I love it and I can’t wait to hear more. Unfortunately, we have to end here, but you will be able to hear Tara in just a few weeks.

Thank you.  You’ve been listening to Expert Open Radio, and this is a reminder to get your tickets for the largest, highest rated TEDx conference on the east coast, which is TEDxAsburyPark, on May 18, 2019. And you get to hear from Tara and some other incredible speakers

Tara Geraghty: Thank you so much, Ben.

Ben Freeberg: Thanks, Tara.

Read more about Tara Geraghty here.

Graphic created by Kel Grant.

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