Lawyer-turned-humorist helps raise $2M for research into rare lung disease

A woman who gave up a legal career to raise money to find a cure for her rare lung disease also runs a successful business that encourages humour, reaffirming the belief that laughter is excellent medicine.

Woman with LAM does comedy fundraisers and runs a business promoting the therapeutic power of laughter

Dr. Bill Stanford, right, a world-renowned stem cell researcher, has assembled a small team at Ottawa Hospital Research Institute to undertake cutting-edge research into the lung disease lymphangioleiomyomatosis, or LAM. (CBC)

A giant chicken dances on a street corner in Toronto's bustling financial district, offering handshakes and high-fives. Many pedestrians hurry past, paying no heed. But it's an unusual sight and some do pause, to accept a hug or take a picture.

Bemused grins and chuckles abound. And that's what Catherine Lawrence — the woman dressed in the ridiculous chicken outfit — lives for.

"In our busy successful lives — where we're running wide open, full throttle — let's bring the laughter in," says Lawrence, a 57-year-old lawyer-turned-humorist.

Catherine Lawrence believes in the therapeutic power of humour. She launched a business called Survival of the Funniest and she often dresses up in costume, such as the chicken suit, to get a laugh and get the word out about the benefits of laughter clubs. (CBC)

What is no laughing matter is that Lawrence suffers from lymphangioleiomyomatosis, also known as LAM, a rare multi-organ disease that affects only women.

When she was diagnosed in 2006, Lawrence was given five to 10 years to live. Slowly but surely, the disease has caused hundreds of small cysts to form on her lung tissues.

"In effect, my lungs look like Swiss cheese," she says.

Still, not only has Lawrence surpassed her "best-before date," she also spearheads a foundation that now raises $500,000 annually to directly fund a lab of Canadian scientists working to find a cure for LAM — and she's doing so with a hearty laugh.

"I believe in the power of laughter, to my very essence." says Lawrence. "I believe laughter is helping save my life."

Survival of the Funniest

It was over 20 years ago, while juggling a career as a high-powered corporate lawyer with the demands of raising three young children, that Lawrence decided to make humour her guiding light.

She gave up her legal career to pursue her dream of becoming a standup comic.

Catherine Lawrence, a lawyer-turned-humorist, has helped raise $2 million for research into LAM, a rare degenerative lung disease that affects women. (Courtesy: Green Eggs and LAM)

"I thought, 'This is what I must do.' Like a divining rod. I need to be a laughter lady. Or the self-appointed Chief Laughter Officer."

In between performing comedy routines, she began studying the therapeutic power of humour. Scientists have long confirmed laughter is excellent medicine: it lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, and generally benefits immune systems. If Lawrence is feeling low, she often forces herself to laugh.

"I just feel my circulation improves, I feel energy, I feel more of a lightness of being, the endorphins get going."

Lawrence launched a business called Survival of the Funniest, and began organizing "laughter clubs," where participants use laughter to spark playfulness, fun and mental balance. Soon, she was receiving invites from corporate boardrooms across North America to give workshops on humour in the workplace. She often showed up to these sessions in costume, dressed as everything from a fireman to a Mountie.

With her laughter business booming, it seemed a cruel twist of fate to learn her growing tendency to run out of breath was, in fact, an incurable disease.

Green Eggs and LAM

Lawrence remembers it clearly. It was 2006, in Hawaii, and she was swimming with dolphins. She started breathing hard, then coughed up blood.

Three months later, after a battery of tests, she was diagnosed with LAM.

"When they shared with me you have five to 10 years to live, I thought, 'That's not enough,'" says Lawrence. "Then it became clear to me there's probably a reason why I'd been working in laughter [for so many years]."

There is no cure for LAM, so Catherine Lawrence employs alternative health treatments such as yoga and acupuncture to fight her dwindling lung capacity. (CBC)

With the same passion she'd thrown herself into laughter, Lawrence set out to learn more about the disease. She learned that LAM occurs almost exclusively amongst women, usually in their thirties and forties. Because it's so rare — five out of every million women in the world are diagnosed with LAM — it's often misdiagnosed as asthma or even emphysema. There is no cure.

Rather than despair, Catherine Lawrence was inspired.

"I had been speaking about the importance of laugher. So here you go, little Miss Laughter Lady," muses Lawrence. "That became my challenge. How was I going to make this my Mount Everest?"

A year after her diagnosis, she asked friends and family to donate to LAM research on her birthday in lieu of gifts. They surprised her, raising over $100,000.

Scientists gathered from around the world

That's when she hatched the idea of Green Eggs and LAM — a Toronto-based organization dedicated to funding scientific research into the disease.

In 2009, she gathered 30 scientists from around the world, including Dr. Bill Stanford, a world-renowned stem cell researcher then based in Toronto. Lawrence gifted laughter baskets to all the scientists, full of gag gifts such as funny glasses and rubber chickens. The unusual basket left an impression on Stanford.

"Either this person's crazy," thought Stanford, "or really a genius at getting my attention."

Growing LAM-like cells for research

Stanford agreed to help, and with Lawrence at the helm, Green Eggs and LAM began holding fundraisers. Little scientific data existed on the disease, and the funding allowed Stanford to assemble a small research team at Ottawa Hospital Research Institute to undertake cutting-edge science, including growing LAM-like cells which new drugs can be tested on.

"We already have one drug to treat patients with this disease. It doesn't do everything it needs to do, but it's a disease that we could cure in our lifetimes."

Lawrence has directly benefited from the advances. Four years ago, she signed up for the first clinical trials of a drug called rapamycin. It's slowing the progression of LAM — but not stopping it.

'Forging ahead'

While Lawrence appears indefatigable, her friend Phyllis Ellis has observed the inevitable toll LAM is taking on her.

"It's really hard for her to breathe. It's getting worse ... this is a degenerative disease."

Lawrence now stops daily for oxygen breaks, resting for up to an hour while a machine artificially oxygenates her body. She practises iyengar yoga, where she hangs upside down from the ceiling and sprawls open-chested across a hobby horse, all intended to help her breathe better. She also visits an acupuncturist, yet another alternative health treatment she employs to fight her dwindling lung capacity.

But, she prefers not to discuss her limitations.

"I focus on what is right with me, not what's wrong with me."

As a LAM patient who has lived with the disease for 10 years, she's aware of her own mortality — but remains committed to fundraising to continue the research.

"The goal is for Green Eggs and LAM not to exist. We're just forging ahead," Lawrence says, her face breaking into a giant smile.


Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of CBC Radio One's Cross Country Checkup and a correspondent for CBC's The National. He reported from Vancouver for over 15 years, and is now based in Toronto. During a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 2011, he created a guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.