There was a time when receiving a cancer diagnosis was considered a death sentence. The disease was ominous, foreboding and often thought to be contagious. Apparently, even speaking the word could be bad luck, so we reduced it to a single letter…but capitalized it to emphasize the magnitude and the menace—the Big “C” or the “C” word. People who had cancer were viewed only as patients. Probably terminal.
I grew up watching Marcus Welby, MD, Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey and Medical Center. Each week, there was a disease, and sometimes it was cancer. On these shows, a person would be diagnosed and the “result” would be evident by the end of the hour-long drama—seldom allowing a repeat role for the actor since the patient usually didn’t survive.
Cancer has been a subject matter in the entertainment industry for many years, with such memorable films as Brian’s Song (1971), Terms of Endearment (1983) and A Walk to Remember (2002). The cancer patient is generally presented as courageous, longsuffering and admirable, but primarily as a vehicle to bring out the best in others, melt the heart of some curmudgeon, mend broken relationships or provide lessons on the value of life. (Isn't this plot device how Lifetime TV began?)
But I think maybe the portrayal might be changing. It appears the person who has the disease is being shown on a much broader scale.
And they don’t always die!
At the movies, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman are two men with terminal cancer who break out and decide to do the things on their “Bucket List” before they die. The central character in the star-studded August: Osage County has mouth cancer. The Fault is in Our Stars was a bestselling novel (2012) and is now a successful movie about two cancer patients who meet and fall in love. (These are just a few I could mention.)
Likewise, TV is not just devoting that one “Sweeps Week” episode to the subject; they will make it a season-long storyline. Parenthood’s treatment of Kristina Braverman’s battle with breast cancer was powerful, and covered several seasons. I also remember the multiple episodes on Gray's Anatomy (Izzy) and Brothers & Sisters (Kitty).
A new television trend is to build an entire show around someone with cancer.
In the 2001 made-for-TV movie (and subsequent Broadway show) Wit, we see the main character learn of her diagnosis with terminal Ovarian Cancer, her struggle through experimental treatments, the dreary hospital environment, the interaction with her caregivers, and her slow decline to death.
In contrast, The Big C on Showtime was a comedy, and it lasted four seasons.
On Breaking Bad, the main character was a high school chemistry teacher with lung cancer who decided to cook meth as a way to make money to provide money for his family. In the end, after five seasons, it wasn’t his cancer that killed him.
The new show on ABC Family, Chasing Life, has an upwardly mobile young woman discover she has cancer. (The main lesson here, as on other ABC Family shows, is probably that bad things happen to pretty people.)
A show premiering in the fall centers around sick kids who essentially live in a children's hospital. Two of the main characters (also young and attractive) have cancer that resulted in the loss of limb.
I am not complaining, and welcome the awareness it is probably creating. I don’t imagine there’s any way to get around the need for a cliché “life lesson” in cancer stories; it’s still too much of a focus, in my opinion. I do object to the stereotype cancer patient who is always courageous and inspiring. However, I can appreciate some the new elements. We now see that anyone can get cancer (even pretty young people), there's not always a reason, and no one responds the same way. Cancer sucks, and it’s horrible, but we are shown there can also be humor in the process. And there’s a range of emotions and reactions from those who receive this diagnosis, some of which are not noble or inspiring or admirable.
If there must be lessons in the TV shows and movies about cancer, I would hope we learn: People with cancer are more than tragic patients who die, they are courageous people who find ways to live.
But if I had my way, the main lesson could be: It's not intended to teach anyone any kind of lesson! It's a damned disease, not an illustration for teaching.