Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Big C

I've been watching that Showtime TV series, entitled "The Big C", starring Laura Linney as Cathy, a 40-something-year- old woman diagnosed with Stage 4 Melanoma.   The series is positioned as a black comedy and despite my initial skepticism I have to say that I'm a fan.  Okay, I know there's some controversy out there in that Laura Linney is apparently a smoker, so why would she have the kahunas to portray a woman dealing with terminal cancer when cigarette smoking is a leading cause of lung cancer, but before we get too excited from a cancer-police perspective,  let's just stick to the discussion at hand and talk about the merits of this unusual show.

First of all, from my perspective it's kind of nice (and extremely unusual) to see the experience of living with cancer being portrayed in mainstream media in a way that doesn't involve a lot of people crying, morose violin music and a tragic funeral at the end of it.   Don't get me wrong, there is a poignancy to the show and an overarching theme of the useless tragedy of it all, and obviously there's nothing funny or entertaining about having cancer from a big picture point of view, but living with cancer day-to-day, as I do, certainly does provide some moments worthy of a well-scripted television series that includes some inside jokes and laughs that many of us immersed in the cancer culture can instantly relate to.  

Now I could poke some holes in some of the show's premises, like whether it's realistic to think that someone would receive a terminal cancer diagnosis and not actually tell her immediate family.  Maybe back in the bad old days, when nefarious diseases or other matters of health were certainly not polite dinner conversation I could believe it, but today I'm not so sure.  And would an oncologist really be that familiar with his patient that he would take her to look at a house he wanted to buy ?  And does getting a cancer diagnosis really make you want to rush out and get a Brazilian wax job ?    The show has also conveniently chosen to completely avoid the decidedly unglamorous details of chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and the like, by having Cathy choose not to have treatment and let the disease run it's natural course.  Which begs the question as to how the show will run its natural course, given Cathy has a date with death in the not too distant future.  But probably better not to over-think this issue right now and just enjoy the show.

But anyway, one of my favorite episodes is when Cathy takes up her oncologist's suggestion that she attend a local support group.  She walks into a room filled with a circle of seated people, and immediately introduces herself by way of a monologue of her life's accomplishments, how much she loves her life, her political views and blah blah blah.  This takes some time and at the end of it she is met by a roomful of blank stares, and then the group leader turns around and says "But do you have cancer?".  With that, Cathy turns terrified tail and rushes out the door never to return to the dreaded support group. For the remaining time of the episode she must deal with the stalker-like efforts of some of the group members who try to engage her in conversation about her cancer and dump uninvited casseroles on her doorstep.  I thought this episode was a classic and could only have been appreciated and concocted by someone who has been in Cathy's shoes.   In the world of cancer, you either like support groups or you don't and I thought this episode really hit the point about the struggle that we face every day in determining not to let cancer consume our individual identities.

So we'll see how the rest of the series plays out, and I'll check back in with some updated thoughts on the story-lines, but for now I've pushed my skepticism aside and am watching with an endeared albeit slightly critical eye.

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