Why Julia Louis-Dreyfus Laughed "Hysterically" at Her Cancer Diagnosis
Her reaction may seem strange—but it actually makes perfect sense.
From Saturday Night Live to Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has had a legendary career in comedy. But after winning her sixth Emmy for the HBO series Veep in 2017—she now holds the all-time record for the most Primetime Emmy Award wins, with 11 in total—the star received some life-changing news. The results from a breast lump biopsy had come in, and Louis-Dreyfus was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.
Surprisingly, the star says she reacted to that crushing phone call with "hysterical" laughter, as she recently told David Letterman on his hit Netflix show. Read on to learn why she says she responded to the news of her cancer "like a crazy person," and how the experience reminded her of another near-death experience she'd had years before.
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The actor was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017.
When Veep came to a halt after its sixth season so that Louis-Dreyfus could begin treatment for breast cancer, the comedian decided to share her health news with fans via Instagram: "1 in 8 women get breast cancer. Today, I'm the one," the actor wrote. "The good news is that I have the most glorious group of supportive and caring friends, and fantastic insurance through my union. The bad news is that not all women are so lucky, so let's fight all cancers and make universal health care a reality."
The Seinfeld star had a double mastectomy and completed six rounds of chemotherapy over the year that followed. In 2018, she went on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and shared that she was finally cancer-free.
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Louis-Dreyfus says she laughed "hysterically" after receiving her diagnosis.
Who but a veteran comedian could laugh at their own cancer diagnosis? Louis-Dreyfus says this was her first reaction upon hearing the horrible health news. "It was completely out of the blue that I got this diagnosis and it happened, believe it or not… on the heels of getting an Emmy. Within 10 hours," she shared on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman. "I very happily won that night and then the next morning the phone rang saying, you know, 'I've got bad news, you have cancer," she said, chuckling darkly at the memory.
"Not that it's funny, but it is funny juxtaposition-wise. It's kind of unbelievable," she explained. "And I did start sort of laughing hysterically like a crazy person, and then it morphed into something else of course."
Her battle with breast cancer was reminiscent of an earlier event.
During that same interview, Louis-Dreyfus likened her breast cancer diagnosis to another terrifying experience she'd had years before while vacationing with her husband, Brad Hall.
"A long time ago, my husband and I were in the ocean and I was swimming. We were doing this thing that had to do with studying dolphins—it was really cool," she recalled. "All of a sudden, Brad came to the bow of the boat and said, 'Jules, I don't want you to panic, but there's a shark in the water and I need you to come back to the boat," she said, reenacting his calm amid the crisis.
In that moment, Louis-Dreyfus experienced a singularity of focus and determination she had never felt before. "I remember very vividly there was a ladder and I was just hell-bent on that ladder, getting to that ladder. I was focused on the ladder. I didn't look around me or anything—I was just getting to the ladder. And that's what this experience [of having cancer] was exactly like for me," she shared.
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She says laughter ultimately helped her heal.
While speaking with The New Yorker in 2018, Louis-Dreyfus choked back tears. She explained that in addition to the support she received from her family and close friends, it was her ability to laugh that got her through her darkest hours.
"The old cliché about laughter being the best medicine turns out to be true: when I was getting my hideous chemotherapy, I'd cram a bunch of friends and family into the tiny treatment room with me… We really did have some great laughs. Of course, I was heavily medicated and slipping in and out of consciousness, so I was a pretty easy audience," she said, wiping away tears. "My point is that laughter is a basic human need along with… love, and an HBO subscription," she added, barely able to get the words out. "That would have worked better if I weren't weeping."
Passionate about her work on set, the actor says the promise of returning to Veep also kept her motivated throughout her treatment. "I was thinking about it all the time—I couldn't wait to get back to this normalcy," Louis-Dreyfus told Letterman. "This pursuit of making something good as a group is just the most elevated of experiences."
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