Health & Fitness

Healing through humor — Improv classes teach cancer survivors the power of laughter

The improv crew at Gilda’s Club South Florida, which hosts free improv classes for cancer survivors and their caregivers.
The improv crew at Gilda’s Club South Florida, which hosts free improv classes for cancer survivors and their caregivers. Special to the Miami Herald

The first exercise at a recent improv class at Gilda’s Club South Florida is a game called “I love.”

The goal is simple: “Rather than focusing on what we dislike, we’re going to focus on what we love,” says Aniela McGuinness, 35, an actress, improvisational teacher and performer, and one of the volunteer facilitators of the improv get-together.

She and Dr. Robyn Cassel, 37, a licensed clinical psychologist, and fellow improv actress, have something in common with the dozen or so other people who are sitting in a circle of chairs during the kick-off of the improv comedy class, which runs until the end of this month.

Their lives have all been affected by cancer, both directly and indirectly, and they’re using laughter to lighten heavy hearts.

Aniela McGuinness, left, and Robyn Cassel,  right
Aniela McGuinness, left, and Robyn Cassel are improv instructors at Gilda’s Club in Fort Lauderdale. They teach free classes for cancer survivors and their caregivers. McGuinness is a two-time cancer survivor and Cassel’s fiancé died of prostate cancer in 2013, when he was just 31. Caitlin Granfield Special to the Miami Herald

McGuinness is a two-time cancer survivor. Her mother, who was a member of Gilda’s Club, passed away from ovarian cancer in 2013.

Cassel’s fiancé died of prostate cancer in 2013, when he was just 31.

Before the first exercise kicked off, Cassel asked the class if they knew what improv was. “Making things up on the spot,” said two of the participants.

So, what do they love? “Puppies!” “The smell of fresh cut grass…” “Coffee first thing in the morning.” “Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream!”

Those in attendance were a mix of people who have cancer, who are in remission, and caregivers and friends of those who currently have or have had cancer.

For some, it was their first improv class. There was no stage involved, just people coming together to let loose and laugh. “This is totally geared toward having fun and just being and connecting,” Cassel said.

Gilda’s Club South Florida, an affiliate of the Cancer Support Community, is situated in a historic home in downtown Fort Lauderdale overlooking the Tarpon River. It offers free programs and support for people of all ages, including kids, who have been impacted by cancer, directly or indirectly. Activities and programming include yoga, writing classes, watercolor classes, lectures and support groups in English and in Spanish.

Gilda’s Club is named after one of the original “Saturday Night Live” cast members, Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989. The flagship chapter is in New York.

Since all programs are offered for free, the organization relies on donations and volunteers to keep their mission going — to support, educate, and empower cancer patients and their families so that no one has to face cancer alone.

Lori Ginsberg, 63, of Coconut Creek has been coming to Gilda’s Club South Florida with her husband, Fred Ginsberg, 62, since Valentine’s Day. She usually goes to the support group for caretakers while her husband goes to the cancer support group in the next room. He’s had renal cell carcinoma, a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in tubules of the kidney, for 13 years.

“This is a place where friendships are made,” Lori said.

She and her husband made snarky and sweet jokes with each other throughout the improv class. “I love giving my wife a hard time,” said Mr. Ginsberg, when it was his turn in the “I love” game.

In another word association game, this time using the phrase “_____ makes me think of _____,” Mrs. Ginsberg said, “Sunshine makes me think of warmth and warmth makes me think of Fred.” The class cooed.

Next came an exercise where everyone closed their eyes and said the first word that came to their minds, following a word that was said by the person sitting next to them. The idea behind it is to practice mindfulness and be in the present, and to not dwell on the past or be anxious about the future.

“Blue.” “Yellow.” “Sunsets.” “Jimmy Buffet.” “Love.” “Grandchildren.” “Family.” “Hospital.” “Chemo.”

McGuinness and Cassel met at Sick Puppies Comedy in Boca Raton, which puts on live improv shows and offers improv classes. McGuinness had been acting and teaching improv there, and Cassel was looking to try something fun after grad school, which was also around the time her fiancé died from prostate cancer.

“It reminded me that it’s important to self-care,” said Cassel. “Improv gave me a “brain break.” We use all of the principles of mindfulness that I teach people therapeutically. It was life changing.”

McGuinness was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer when she was 31, a year and a half after her mother died of ovarian cancer in 2013. The diagnosis came just three days before her appointment to have a preventive double mastectomy, which she undertook after she learned she carried the mutated BRCA gene, increasing her risk of breast cancer.

Six months ago, she underwent the last of multiple surgeries to remove basal cell cancer, a type of skin cancer, on her nose, which involved reconstructive plastic surgery. She’s cancer-free now.

She had the idea to teach improv to cancer patients and caretakers at Gilda’s Club, where her mother had been a member, as a way to show them that it’s okay to laugh. Cassel volunteered with her.

“I used improv when my mother died to help cope with grief,” said McGuinness. “And I used improv when I had breast cancer to make people not feel so uncomfortable. When people find out you have cancer they tend to shy away.”

“I’m here because comedy was healing for me and I want to give that to other people,’’ added Cassel. “I think having fun allows you to let go — of planning and having these difficult expectations.”

“Improv gives people permission to laugh,” noted McGuinness, who runs her own lifestyle blog and YouTube series, “My Breast Choice,” and she’s one of the co-founders of Cancer Grad, which seeks to redefine the cancer experience “from a war/battle experience” to an educational one.

“Going through something so hard, many of us have cried a lot,” said McGuinness. “But it’s also really cathartic to laugh.”

“When it comes to the idea that laughter is the best medicine — no, medicine is the best medicine,” said McGuinness, with a sincere laugh.

“And therapy is the best therapy,” added Cassel. “But laughter and improv can be helpful, therapeutic and life changing.”

If you go

Improv classes at Gilda’s Club South Florida take place each Friday in May from 11 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.

The classes are free of charge for those living with cancer and for those affected by cancer. McGuinness and Cassel plan to offer more improv classes at Gilda’s Club in the fall.

For those interested in learning improv or to see a show, they recommend checking out local groups like Just the Funny and Mad Cat Theatre Company, both based in Miami, or Sick Puppies Comedy, in Boca Raton.

Visit or call 954-763-6776 to register for classes, and to learn more about Gilda’s Club, 119 Rose Drive, Fort Lauderdale