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/// Q&A Best Medicine C

Questions for Leann Arkema, President and CEO of Gilda’s Club, a cancer support community with the three-fold mission of learning, sharing and laughing. Gilda’s Club is the organi- zational brain behind Grand Rapids’ first-ever LaughFest.

ould you tell me a little bit about Gilda Radner? Gilda is Gilda Radner, one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live. She was always getting noogies from co-star Bill Murray. She lived to make others laugh. But in 1986 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and after her diagnosis she realized, and wrote in her

book It’s Always Something, “My job was to find what was funny about whatever was going on. So I began to think that I should do the same thing with cancer. It needed me badly because it has such a terrible reputation.”

How did she inspire Gilda’s Club? Just before she died, Gilda asked her husband, Gene Wilder, and her cancer therapist, Joanna Bull, to create places where people like her could gather together, support each other through cancer and have a few laughs along the way. She knew how important that had been to her in the midst of her then-terminal cancer journey. Gilda’s gift, really, to anyone on a cancer journey or supporting someone living with cancer, is that permission to laugh. We don’t normally associate cancer with laughter; yet, Gilda changed that notion. Still, there’s this myth out there that this is a dreary, depressing place.

Where did that myth originate? I don’t know. I think it’s just the associations with cancer that people here are just sitting around sharing cancer “sob stories.” Our message is that you can learn to live with cancer, whatever the outcome, even if your diagnosis is terminal. There is an emotionally healthy way to journey the road with cancer, and that is what everyone here is doing. Often, cancer in a family can allow focus on the important things in life. More than anything, we want people to know that Gilda’s Club is a place where people find their smile back—we truly laugh a lot here. We may deal with real emotions like sadness, fear and anxiety; yet it’s not a depressing place because we are all living—truly living here.

Medical professionals frequently cite the health benefits of laughter. Is that what this is about? Is that why a cancer support community is organizing the first citywide comedy festival? Laughter is extremely valuable for our emotional health. When you’re laughing you’re using a completely different part of your brain than when you’re depressed or anxious. Research shows that children laugh on average 400 times a day and by the time

we get to be adults we’re hitting a high point if we laugh four times a day. We all need to be more childlike. We need to take ourselves less seriously. Just laugh out loud for the sake of laughing out loud.

So what makes you laugh? My basset hound, Gracie. She’s gone now, but she was proof to me that God has a sense of humor.

Will we be seeing you perform during any of community showcases? Oh, no. That would be a good way to clear the room. n



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