The healing power of mahjongg?

For more than five years, one of my best friends has been battling ovarian cancer. A fierce fighter (and fabulous friend!), she has endured surgeries and several rounds of chemotherapy to keep this grim disease at bay. Her oncologist monitors her condition with the blood test CA-125.

Early last summer, her CA-125 began creeping up into the “let’s watch it but not get too excited—yet” territory. She knew from past experience that she might be facing another round of chemo.

Then we began playing mahjongg. Or, more accurately, American mahjongg, which is a variant of the arcane Chinese game that is played with tiles. American mahjongg was introduced in the 1920s but has become increasingly popular in recent years. Friends and neighbors are coming together to form weekly mahjongg groups, often advertising on local blogs for new members.

My friend had learned to play mahjongg a few months earlier and was thrilled to teach me when I asked. We joined a local gathering that met once a week and included a pot luck dinner. The soft click click click of the tiles being washed (shuffled) punctuated the laughter and chatter. Our bodies relaxed as our minds engaged.

We happily spent the summer playing innumerable hours of mahjongg. We played weekly in the larger group, but also catch-as-catch-can with just ourselves, or with whatever friends we could find who had an hour or two (or three or four) to spare.

And throughout the summer and fall, my friend’s CA-125 steadily went down.

Of course, no research has been done to tell us if playing mahjongg typically lowers CA-125 levels, but research has shown that laughter and music, two other pleasurable activities, lower stress hormones in our bodies and raise endorphins, the happy hormones. These stress-reducing chemical reactions help boost our immune systems.

Mahjongg is also a complex thinking game, just the kind of activity that neuroscientists recommend to ward off dementia. In fact, in 2006 a small study in The International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry concluded that playing mahjongg produced “consistent gains across all cognitive performance measures,” such as improved memory. And it was deemed low-cost therapy!

Mahjongg is a social activity, too, which is encouraged for optimal brain health.

mahjong how to playSo even if you don’t have ovarian cancer, check out your neighborhood blog for a mahjongg group. Elaine Sandberg has written a great book, A Beginner’s Guide to American Mah Jongg, if you are interested in learning more about the game.

There are also neighborhood game nights that meet weekly to play Scrabble, Boggle, Pictionary, etc. Or start your own. Whatever you enjoy. It’s all good.

If nothing else, spending an evening with friends allows us to turn off our TVs, our laptops, our tablets and our smartphones for a few hours and escape media’s relentless efforts to convince us we are sick.

Sláinte and Happy New Year!

Frugal Nurse

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