Jokes Allowed: How Humor (and Other Strategies) Helped This YA Cope With Late-stage Cancer

May 22, 2024

"To keep going is resilience in the face of something terrible going on,” says Courtney, pictured here.

Writing, joking, TikToking & connecting helped Courtney get through the toughest moments of an advanced-stage melanoma diagnosis. 

If I wasn’t going to laugh, I was going to cry, and there was a better way for me to get through it.


The news came just when life was starting to feel normal again.

It was late 2021. Many people were easing back into their pre-pandemic routines. Theaters, concert halls, and comedy clubs were booking events again. Performers were returning to the stage. Courtney, a 26-year-old Chicago-based actress and comedian, had plans to do the same.  

But when Courtney received the results of a biopsy, everything changed in an instant. She was told that a persistent bump under her arm — first examined by a doctor 6 months earlier and dismissed as breast tissue — was, in fact, late stage 3/early stage 4 melanoma.  

“It felt like I was living some alternate reality,” she says, looking back on the days and weeks after her diagnosis. “Like someone else who was living this really terrible life, because I never expected my life to go down this path.”  


“You just lose the innocence of youth — for me that’s what it felt like, because I just wanted to be a normal 26-year-old and not have the pressure of a life-threatening illness.”

— Courtney 


In the days after her diagnosis, Courtney grappled with the question “Why me?” 

“I think this is almost universal for cancer survivors is [asking] ‘Why me? Why did this terrible thing happen to me?’” she says. “There are not a lot of reasons why. It’s like, ‘Why not you?’ It could have happened to anybody. I never spent a day in a tanning bed, but I had melanoma. It was anger around that — you think there are a lot of worse people in the world it could have happened to, and I was comparing myself to other people which, I don’t know, was a coping mechanism at the time.”

It wasn’t just anger that she felt. Courtney recalls feeling a deep sadness and grief for the life she had been living before cancer. Over time, those emotions gave way to resilience. 

“You can’t cope with your life unless you are resilient,” she says. “You have to grieve — that is what makes us people. But to keep going is resilience in the face of something terrible going on.”


Getting Through Treatment  

After weighing a first and second opinion about her treatment options, Courtney opted to go with the second, from an oncologist at Northwestern Medicine who specializes in skin cancers and melanomas. The course of treatment would include immunotherapy using a combination of 2 drugs.

Like other cancer therapies, immunotherapy can have side effects. Often, they are temporary and not severe. Less often, side effects can be severe, such as problems with the liver, kidney, or heart.

“I lasted one round of the two drugs and went into liver failure,” says Courtney.  

She was hospitalized for 10 days after her first round of treatment. For her next 11 rounds of immunotherapy, her care team administered just one drug.  

“Of course, they never know what is going to be effective for each individual person,” says Courtney. It was scary, she adds, not knowing if just one drug would be effective.

“Going through immunotherapy is hard,” she says. There were side effects — gastrointestinal issues, fatigue, rashes. “I was able to try to live as normal as possible. I still didn’t know what life would look like — what my end goal was going to look like — if I was going to be able to finish treatment. I felt pressured to leave something behind at that point.”

Courtney paired up with her friend Kelton, a comedy writer, and together, they wrote a comedy show (the duo later performed it before an audience). “It was like, ‘God forbid, if I’m not here, at least I left something behind,’” she says.

Having a strong support system among friends and family also helped her during treatment. Her parents and sister periodically traveled from out of town to stay with her, and her longtime partner Tyler accompanied her to treatments at the hospital. Often, she joked with friends and family about her cancer experience. “It was always kind of the butt of the joke [with] people I was close with,” says Courtney. “If I wasn’t going to laugh, I was going to cry, and there was a better way for me to get through it.”  

Ultimately, the 11 additional rounds of immunotherapy with the single drug worked. In 2022, Courtney was declared as having NED: no evidence of disease.

“When I did finish treatment, it was full steam ahead,” she says, “like I have my life back and I need to take advantage of this and start performing again.”

Courtney (center, front) performing with her improv team Whimsy Lohan in 2023.
Courtney (center, front) performing with her improv team Whimsy Lohan in 2023. 
Finding Peer Support

Adolescents and young adults with cancer face “real disparities” when it comes to both diagnosis and care, notes hematologist-oncologist Allison Rosenthal, D.O., in a Mayo Clinic blog.1 As Dr. Rosenthal put it, “This is an underdiagnosed, underserved, and under-recognized population.”1

Compared with other age groups, cancers in AYAs are often diagnosed at later stages.2,3  

Cancer care itself is generally not targeted to meet the unique needs of young adults.4 Treatment and management tend to fall on either the pediatric side or the older adult side of the oncology care spectrum.4 As a result, young adults can feel sidelined throughout their cancer care experience.

Courtney sensed this disparity from the moment of her diagnosis. “Even when they handed me a brochure for melanoma, it was older people on it. I was like, ‘Where is the representation?’” 

Finding other YAs with whom she could connect proved invaluable. “There were young adult programs to help me process — just meeting people who are going through the same thing. Everyone of all ages suffers from cancer. It doesn’t care what age you are, but it can be daunting to look around the cancer center and you are the youngest one there.”

For peer support, Courtney turned to a variety of resources. There was Imerman Angels, a program that pairs young cancer patients with a mentor of a similar age and cancer diagnosis. And First Descents, an organization that hosts outdoor adventure trips for young adults impacted by cancer and other serious health conditions. Courtney went on a kayaking trip through the organization. “I still talk to my First Descents friends that I’ve made,” she says.

There was also True North Treks. The Cassie Hines Shoes Cancer Foundation. And Gilda’s Club Chicago, part of Cancer Support Community’s network of 196 locations around the globe.

After she completed treatment, Courtney also participated in CSC’s YA survivorship educational program, Cancer Transitions for Young Adults: Moving Beyond Treatment. The professionally facilitated, 4-week program addresses physical, social, and practical issues young adult survivors can face. Participants also have opportunities to learn from one another through group discussions. “I think it’s important for people to meet other young people who have gone through it,” shares Courtney.


“There are so many resources. That was important for me, coping, getting connected and having access to these things, especially for my mental health.”

— Courtney 


Sharing Her Story

Throughout her treatment, Courtney shared her experience on her social media, filming videos for Instagram and TikTok that depicted “a day in the life of getting treatment.” Now she has a collection of journal-like videos to look back on. Watching them helps her recall the emotions she was feeling at the time, she says. “For me it was vital to be processing it while going through it. I’m very open about it and like to talk about it.”

Courtney continues to share her story today as she navigates the ins and outs of survivorship, including regular CT scans and annual MRIs. Currently she’s writing a show about her experience.

“It’s comedic, but still authentic to what I went through,” she says. “I’m hoping to finish it sometime before the summer ends. I think I will have ensemble members to play the nurses and doctors and my friends.”

Courtney also continues to be open about her cancer experience and welcomes people’s questions about it.

“It doesn’t define me,” she says. “But I went through something very hard and very difficult, and I think it shows who I am as a person. Especially when I’m meeting people, I always feel like there’s a point where I have to come out and say, ‘Yeah, for a year I had cancer, and it’s part of me.’”


  1. Ferrara, Nicole Brudos. Q&A on cancer in adolescents and young adults. Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center Blog. Published April 4, 2023.
  2. American Cancer Society. Finding Cancer in Young Adults. Last revised: July 30, 2020.
  3. Herbert A, Lyratzopoulos G, Whelan J, et al. Diagnostic timeliness in adolescents and young adults with cancer: a cross-sectional analysis of the BRIGHTLIGHT cohort. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. Vol 2, Issue 3.  January 29, 2018.
  4. Scott AR, Stoltzfus KC, Tchelebi LT. Trends in Cancer Incidence in US Adolescents and Young Adults, 1973-2015. JAMA Netw Open. December 1, 2020.