Cancer drama

June 13th, 2014
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Cancer sucks.

In this case, that’s not stating a fact (although it is probably provable) it also happens to be part of the promotional campaign for a new show on ABC Family channel, “Chasing Life.

A description, from the show’s official page:

“April is a smart, twenty-something, aspiring journalist whose romantic and professional life is just starting to take off when she receives news that she has cancer.”

The show premiered Tuesday, June 10.

It coincides with last week’s wide release of “The Fault in Our Stars,” the movie adaptation of the best-selling Young Adult novel by John Greene about two young cancer patients’ blossoming romance under the most trying of health circumstances.

Of course, cancer has been around as a dramatic catalyst in films for decades (the original TV movie “Brian’s Song” with James Caan and Billy Dee Williams remains one of my favorites). But in this day and age of media saturation (over saturation?) repetition and social media, it seems we could be on the verge of a new theme in the teen/tween/YA genre.

But are such portrayals helpful, or hurtful to cancer patients and their families?

(Warning: This rest of this post may contain spoilers.)

First, “Chasing Life.” Based on the previews and ads, there seems to be a lot to not like about this show. The taglines “Cancer sucks” and “Giving up is not an option,” are both kind of clumsy. As Mary Elizabeth Williams (cancer survivor) stated in Salon:

“Gosh, thanks, because if people with cancer only knew they had options, I’ll bet more of them would pick the not giving up one.”

Cliché and cheesy, for sure. And this doesn’t even mention the promo ad showing our main character April (Italia Ricci) looking pretty and perched atop an open casket full of lemons. (Williams: "Because you know the old saying: When life hands you cancer, make lemonade.")

It is, however, easier to look past this schmaltz if you consider the other original programming on ABC Family (see also: promos for “Pretty Little Liars,” “Switched at Birth” and “The Fosters”).

After giving it a chance, the pre-show concerns were somewhat confirmed, but it is not unwatchable if you take it for what it is: an ABC Family drama. As Williams quoted from the Los Angeles Times review:

“… (W)hen it's not being completely ridiculous, 'Chasing Life' is very good.”

As for it’s portrayal of a young cancer patient, it’s hard to sit in judgment of anyone, particularly a 24-year-old just starting out in life with a turbulent family situation who learns out of the blue she has cancer. Who’s to say that any of us experiencing our first bit of success in life – work, relationships, etc. – wouldn’t feel the same type of fear and anger that April experiences?

I’ll be the first to admit that during both bouts with cancer I had a lot more going for me than this character.

In 1985, I was only 13, void of a job, bills to pay or any kind of relationship that would have suffered. Schoolwork was do-able from a hospital bed and my cancer, the osteosarcoma, was caught early enough to be treatable and, for the most part, cured. (The harder part has been dealing with the numerous infections after the initial surgery.)

Last summer, thyroid cancer struck at an inopportune time, but aside from being one of the most treatable forms of the disease, was caught and treated very early. (It just happened to come at a time when I was expecting to miss a significant amount of time from work because of the infection in my leg.)

The only thing a bit harder to believe in April’s situation is her lack of anyone in which she feels she can confide her “secret.”† That, and the over-the-top coincidences like hearing her boss complain about a co-worker’s flu or seeing a pair of medical professionals in scrubs as she rides the train just seem unnecessary and manipulative. (And the plot twist during the end credits is truly stupid, and purely ABC Family-manufactured melodrama!)

As for “The Fault in Our Stars,” the movie is on my to-do list. The book was an easy read, which I started on the plane home to Hawaii and finished a few days later.

Where the book succeeds over the one-hour pilot of “Chasing Life” is being able to get into the head of a teen-aged/adolescent cancer patient, while also painting a pretty accurate picture of how every day life and relationships can get strained by the treatment. (I’ve heard the movie does a nice job of staying true to the book.)

For the uninitiated, the book introduces us to Hazel, who seems to be a typical teen-ager growing up in Indiana who has been granted a new, but uncertain future battling metastatic thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. At a support group, she meets Gus, a boy roughly her age (late teens) who has lost part of his right leg to osteosarcoma.‡

Again, not to be judgmental, but it was a lot easier to relate to Hazel (played in the movie by Shailene Woodley). Her anger over the unfairness of life, depression over not being able to live like a “normal” kid and her fear about what, if anything, lies ahead was typical of my experience growing up as a teen with a disease that could decide to end your life at any time.

Like me, she has strong support from family who sometimes seem overwhelmed at the injustice of it all. She has her friends who, while not disowning her, perhaps unknowingly keep her at a comfortable distance. (There is no mass head-shaving in her community to show solidarity.) She spends a lot of time watching TV and anything else she can to feel as normal as possible. She meets other patients, not all of whom make it. She gets angry at those who are just trying to help, because as much as they all agree that life isn’t fair, nobody can truly know what she’s going through.

While reviews of both portrayals have run the gamut among cancer patients, survivors, family and friends – check out some of them here, here and here – one thing many seem to say is that it is good to see cancer becoming a disease that is no longer talked about quietly and in hushed tones, as if people, especially young people, who suffer from the disease have to be treated with kid gloves out of fear that they are suffering. This might be true of some, but certainly not for all.

Ilana Horn (another cancer survivor) points out in Time:

“These stories are not meant to be literal representations. What it means to watch them depends on whether we come as outsiders, wanting to understand an experience beyond our own, or as insiders, coming to see our own lives reflected.”

How you interpret them is up to you, but the bottom line to remember is that every cancer patient’s experience is profoundly unique.

Everyone’s experience will be different based on any number of outside variables: What are their familial relationships like? What kind of care are they getting? What is their socio-economic status? What types of friendships have they formed? What life experiences have they had? Etc., etc.

A 16-year-old private school student from affluent suburban Chicago will have an experience vastly different from another 16-year-old public school student in rural Georgia. Just as a 13-year-old who gets treated at the Cleveland Clinic would have a completely different outlook if he were that same 13-year-old treated at a hospital without the same amount of medical expertise and resources.

Regardless, any film, book or TV show that can help bridge physical, emotional or psychological gaps that may exist in the world of a cancer patient is probably a helpful thing.

This effort to bring cancer into the mainstream is laudable (but let’s hope Hollywood stops before it becomes overplayed like the vampire/werewolf romance genre).

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† - What, she doesn’t think anyone in a newsroom full of journalists will keep her diagnosis confidential??!?!  ;-)

‡ - If you’re wondering, YES, the fact that I had both of these cancers gives me some pause before wanting to see the movie.

 

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