Jeremie Saunders, 30, of Halifax has a great sense of humour, a huge online following, and cystic fibrosis. Together with his friends Brian Stever and Taylor MacGillivary, Saunders hosts the Sickboy podcast, a weekly exploration of illness and humanity through candid conversation and a whole lot of laughter.

Because cystic fibrosis is a genetic condition, Saunders has been battling it his entire life. About 1 in 3,600 Canadians are in the same position. The disease affects organs throughout the body and, as in Saunders’ case, primarily the lungs and digestive system. Today he has just 50 percent of his lung function and takes about 40 pills a day. As he tells me this, an automatic “Wow!” escapes my lips. Saunders laughs because that’s such a common reaction, but it really doesn’t help carry the conversation forward. That’s why the world needs Sickboy.

From a joke to an institution

“There’s this weird thing that happens where broaching the subject of your own personal health or illness causes people to tighten up and get really awkward,” says Saunders. “A really important therapy for me growing up was the use of humour. Not as a crutch, but more as a tool to effectively communicate the challenging stuff I’d been going through in a lighter way to make it more approachable. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do with Sickboy. We’re trying to provide a platform where people can express what they’re going through without feeling restricted in any sense. It’s kind of like a therapy session except that we don’t have a degree in anything. It’s just three friends hanging out.”

Saunders says that Sickboy — which has grown to more than 150 episodes and has been the subject of a CBC documentary — started as a joke. “It was an off-the-cuff idea that we had no expectation would ever go anywhere,” he says. “After we recorded the first episode, we realized that it was the first time we had ever heard a conversation about illness that wasn’t a complete bummer. There was something empowering about it.”

Though the first episode of Sickboy focuses on Saunders’ cystic fibrosis, the podcast casts a much wider net today. A recent episode features Canadian rock star Bif Naked talking about her battle with breast cancer. Other episodes have covered everything from Alzheimer’s to ulcerative colitis to sex addiction, and the Sickboy formula works for all of them.

“People aren’t all that different,” says Saunders. “We all have our own things to deal with. It just looks different. In that way, Sickboy isn’t just about illness. We want it to be a catalyst for people to change the way they think and talk about the tough things in their lives.”

Letting your illness define you on your own terms

If that’s the goal, then Saunders and his team are killing it. “We receive a lot of messages from people saying that the podcast has changed the way they relate to their illness, changed the way they communicate with their family and friends, and even changed the way they define themselves as a human,” he says. “It’s quite a trip to see such an overwhelming response to something that, to this day, still feels like just an excuse for three friends to sit down together and make each other laugh.”

The three friends have no intention of stopping the laughter any time soon. There’s still a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of lost time to make up for not speaking openly about illness. The backlog of future guests grows every day as more and more people want to join the conversation and share their truths.

As you listen to Sickboy, it becomes abundantly clear that internalizing these truths is vital to understanding people, and to understanding ourselves. Illness informs who we are and we must embrace that to heal and grow. We need to keep talking so that we can become who we need to be.

“No matter what illness you’re dealing with, it’s going to change you,” says Saunders. “Whether it’s cystic fibrosis, brain cancer, or diabetes, it’s going to have such a deep effect on who you are as a human — and that’s okay. Cystic fibrosis has made me who I am, and I love who I am.”