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Laughing at heart disease

Tue., Feb. 5, 2013

Kay Frances, keynote at Wednesday’s Go Red luncheon, credits humor for learning to handle stress

It was on the comedy circuit, including its grind of 500-mile drives followed by shows followed by 500-mile drives, that Kay Frances most heavily abused alcohol and drugs.

“I wasn’t just taking drugs recreationally,” said Frances, who’ll speak in Spokane on Wednesday about connections between humor and heart health. “It’s that Elvis thing you get into, where you’re up all night and then you sleep half the day, and now you have to wake up to do a show, so you take a pill, and then you want to wind down, so you take some drinks.”

Now more than 20 years sober, Frances, 57, said she eventually learned to handle stress in a healthy way – but humor remains key to her survival. She’ll deliver the keynote address at Wednesday’s Spokane Go Red for Women Luncheon, a fundraiser for the American Heart Association.

“One of the ways to have good heart health is to manage our stress,” Frances said in an interview from Wilmington, Ohio. “And one of the ways to manage our stress is to keep our sense of humor.”

The event at the Spokane Convention Center also will include a silent auction and workshops on cooking, exercise, CPR and potential signs of heart problems, particularly in women. Heart disease survivors will talk about their experiences, including Dr. Katherine Tuttle, a Spokane nephrologist whose husband, a cardiologist, performed CPR to revive her before paramedics arrived.

Heart disease kills about 450,000 women a year, according to the heart association.

“Cancer gets all the press … yet the No. 1 killer of women is heart disease,” Frances said. “And it’s largely preventable. This is what amazes me.”

Frances, who also worked for several years at standup clubs in New York City and appeared on TV and radio comedy shows, now uses humor as a way to talk to audiences about stress and wellness.

She incorporates standup in her talks, she said – “I want people to see how much better they feel after they have laughed” – riffing on everyday subjects: driving, technology, sheets. (“Sheets even brag about being no-iron. Oh, thank heavens. … I hate when friends call you to do stuff, and you’ve got that big, fat pile of unironed sheets staring you in the face.”)

But to Frances, a healthy sense of humor means more than laughter. It also means optimism and an ability to remain calm “amidst the crazy.”

“We’re basically trying to fit 30 hours of activities into a 24-hour day, and what begins to slide is our health,” she said. “We almost brag about how little sleep we can get by with, as if someone that gets 7 or 8 hours of sleep must live the most charmed life.”

With its crowd dressed in red – and in the feather boas awarded to donors – Go Red for Women is supposed to be fun, said Catherine Greer, the volunteer chairwoman of the event and the executive director of Connect Northwest, a nonprofit organization that connects investors with entrepreneurs.

While the event aims to educate women about heart disease, a lecture from a doctor about the merits of exercise and a healthy diet would be redundant, she said. Most people are aware of the merits.

Instead, the event’s planners hope participants will end up considering how stress, anger or sadness may be affecting their health.

Frances served as her mother’s caregiver for seven years before her death. Toward the start of that span, her mother suffered from severe arthritis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Later, she was diagnosed with diabetes and lung cancer.

Frances said the women joked and laughed together.

“When those little gifts of humor come up, you have to take them and run with them,” Frances said. Obviously it’s not appropriate to laugh your way through a circumstance like this. I think it should be part of your toolbox.”

Frances said she especially admired her mother’s optimism.

“When she got the cancer diagnosis, we walked out the office, and I said, ‘Mom, are you all right?’ She said, ‘Did you see my blood pressure? It was perfect.’ ”

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