Laughter as Medicine: Ileana’s Story

Breast cancer survivor Ileana Grimm has always believed humor is her greatest gift. As a cartoonist, she has made a living out of bringing a smile to others’ faces. However, during the past two years, her ability to find joy, on the hardest of days, has helped her maintain hope amidst her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Ileana’s reflections on her breast cancer are filled with engaging storytelling, just like her art. She relayed how one of her childhood camp friends, a two-time breast cancer survivor, bravely let Ileana and other close friends feel her own lump, during a weekend reunion, prior to her mastectomy. She wanted her friends to know what to look for in their own breasts. Ileana is immensely grateful for that friend’s unconventional way of sharing her condition because that exposure gave her the confidence to push for more screenings when, in October 2014 she felt her own lump—which had gone unnoticed just a month prior during her well-woman exam and mammogram. She had been weightlifting and was sore across her chest, but suddenly felt something she knew was different than a pulled muscle.

That fall, she had an ultrasound, NINE biopsies and an MRI, before finally receiving her Stage 2 breast cancer diagnosis in January 2015. By the time of her double mastectomy that February, her original lump had grown in size and spread to her lymph nodes, requiring 6 rounds of chemo and 25 rounds of radiation.  She is very grateful her treatments were fully covered under the healthcare policies of her home country of Canada, but she does wish the process had been faster from discovery to treatment.

Still, she continued to create her art and to look for humor throughout the process. Reflecting on her season of painful and grueling treatments, she says, “I never lost my laughter.” Just hours after her double mastectomy (which is outpatient day surgery in Canada), she woke from a nap on her couch to the sound of her loved ones laughing together in the next room. Even as she lay in pain, feeling groggy and nauseous, the sound of their joy comforted her. Now, post-treatment, Ileana, a lifelong athlete, continues to look for the humor in her situation, joking that “running without a bra is awesome!”

Ileana sobered as she reflected on the unfortunate reality of how many women—one in eight in the U.S. and one in nine in Canada—are affected by breast cancer. “Sadly, I’m not going to be the last one,” she said. We met Ileana at a busy trade show where she was promoting her business, but she generously shared her time with us in hopes of helping other women, just as that dear friend had helped her. We encourage you to share this story with a friend who may need a reminder to become more aware of her own breast health. Thank you, Ileana, for sharing your joy with us—you truly made us laugh and smile.

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