The Script Characters with Cancer Are Told to Follow
Nora Feely on unrealistic storylines and tropes of characters with cancer, what it means to “survive,” gratitude and toxic positivity, and more.
I can’t come back to work. I’m sickER
I’m not sick.
On TV shows like Parenthood, Jane the Virgin, or Sex and the City, though, the story proceeds like this: a secondary character (not the main character, as that would be a downer) gets cancer for one season. They quietly find out they’re sick in a fancy, book-lined office sitting in a nice leather chair (not sitting on an exam table with their shirt half off). Next, friends and family struggle to come to grips, then rally for the character’s “fight.” We all cry.
Another student, one of three younger white women I’ve nicknamed “the MFA girls” because they’re workshopping application essays, chimes in. “She is obviously not fine; it’s crazy to read about someone who is so obviously sick and refusing to see it.”
“Why did she talk so much about her work? And how she’s cute? It’s so self-important.” This student is the real writer in our group, who’s already published a book. I’m pretty sure she hates this class of novices.
I can’t explain that my work comprised an enormous part of my identity before I was sick. That the fiery person who worked 14-hour days for things she cares about is gone now. And that I was cute as Diane Keaton, that I was fun and lively in the before time.
“How did someone who works in a hospital not immediately think cancer? Doesn’t everyone know a lump means cancer?”
This time it’s another of the MFA girls, certainly a cancer muggle, and I wonder if she’s ever found a lump on her own willowy body. I laugh almost sheepishly as the teacher chimes in, “I thought the same thing!”
My favorite classmate, a sweet 22-year-old guy hoping an essay class will improve his standup comedy, turns to me. “This all sounds terrible. But you’re okay now, right?” Wide-eyed, he looks me up and down as if he might find an IV poking out of my arm. I’m glad that the port device in my chest is hidden beneath my sweater.
The teacher tries to cut us off, but I feel a need to comfort him, so I ignore her.
“Oh yeah, I’m fine, healthy now!”
He asks what kind of cancer. I tell him lymphoma (not to be confused with Lyme’s disease mimicking lymphoma), then smile and explain that we’re coming up on two years since my diagnosis. “And I’m here! It’s amazing. I’m so grateful.”
For just a second, I let myself listen to my body. I can feel the fatigue start to lap at me like a tide coming in. My brain is easily overwhelmed these days, and the walls crammed with art and animal heads are dizzying.
I try for something a little more honest. “It’s been hard to bounce back. It’s definitely been an adjustment and shifted my career prospects.”
They nod. Of course, someone adds, because the inevitable response of cancer muggles is to pretend this is normal. Like grief, illness and healing are nonlinear, and scary enough that people don’t want to get too close. They want to believe that in my place, they would be fine.
I fall silent and glance at the clock. Just 30 minutes to go.
The teacher looks relieved that I’ve stopped talking during the hallowed workshop process. The class returns to wondering how “the narrator” (me, the person sitting next to them) couldn’t see what was coming.
When I wrote that essay, I’d believed my reaction was the right one. I went to the doctor right away with every new symptom. I didn’t make a fuss, just did what needed to be done. Now, I’m being told that I didn’t react enough. But what is enough?
What is the right way to embrace the fact that your body is trying to kill you?
As my classmates continue their critique, I’m resentful that they’re blithely talking about this like it’s an elementary school lunchtime argument in the distant past. They think this is all over now, that the cancer is gone and I’m just like them again.
But this is not an accident. It is the consequence of the pervasive cancer character script, which has a clear sequence of before, during, and after-cancer seasons.
On TV, there are some key moments in this script: after the aforementioned classy diagnosis comes chemo, usually represented by losing their hair, throwing up, starting to smoke weed (bonus if it’s a mom who you think would never, lol!), and making a friend at chemo. All the characters struggle, but phrases like “the strongest person I know” are uttered a lot and things turn out okay. Unfortunately, it is narratively required that the chemo friend die to remind everyone that people die of cancer. Bonus points if they leave behind a note that tells the cancer character to go live their one wild and precious life.
Those are the options: you are either the dead chemo friend or the inspirational cancer character. After you finish treatment, you get a scan that says you’re okay. I have yet to see a show where treatment doesn’t work the first time, a frequent occurrence in cancer world. Magically, you move on unscathed by treatment, with no obvious lingering issues.
On Parenthood, Kristina’s cancer season ends with her in Hawaii, bounding toward the ocean holding her husband’s hand. We next see Kristina six months later in a bar, asking her husband to go to a motel and have sex with her while “Let’s Get It On” plays in the background. “Life is a gift, and last year we went through so much stuff…Carpe diem,” she says, arms wrapped around his shoulders. Her adorable curly hair shows none of the post-chemo color change or awkward peach fuzz that plagues real people. She hasn’t even lost her sex drive, like almost every cancer patient I know.
Kristina absolutely has her groove back, hammered home for the viewer when she runs for mayor of Berkeley later in the episode. Asked why she wants to run a stunningly brief six months after treatment, music swells and her eyes glisten as she replies, “I feel like I’ve been given a second chance, and I’m not going to take that lightly.” We see no lingering physical or cognitive symptoms from treatment for the rest of the series. Cancer season over (Until her chemo friend dies in a later season–Gwen never had a chance in that writer’s room).
On The Bold Type, a character has trouble coping after a preventative double mastectomy. Her dad tells her that she is brave but needs to overcome her malaise. “It’s not about muddling through. It’s about embracing and enjoying your life as much as you can, every moment of it. You got a second chance at life. Your mother never had that.” No pressure, though, just a casual invocation of all that your dead mother lost. Carpe diem, indeed.
The problem is that life, particularly life touched by illness, is full of muddling.
I wish I could tell my classmates that I’ve worked hard to follow the script: I went off on a new adventure to New York, despite being sick and exhausted from treatment. I found a part-time job, started working at a yoga studio for free classes, tried to stop eating meat because the earth is melting and something about carcinogens (only to become covered in bruises and left more exhausted). I resumed my previous relationships and roles, and tried to live a life that resembled my former one, convinced my old abilities would re-emerge stronger and better like on TV, and like my oncologist told me they should.
But the script hasn’t worked out for me. I have not moved on unscathed, or gotten anywhere near my old level of energy or mental ability.
My attempts at thriving have mostly resulted in me getting lost, crying alone in subway stations because my brain is too tired to understand the maps. I lose the threads of conversations. I’ve spent endless hours in bed with headaches and fatigue. My body hurts constantly. I went from planning political events to spending days in bed with nerve pain after just attending a protest.
I’ve watched everyone else’s lives move on—new jobs, babies, moves, promotions, the daily grinds of full-time careers. A few months ago, I went to the first birthday party for my cousin’s daughter, my goddaughter. I agonized over what to wear, worried my aunts would realize I’d gained 30 pounds, finally settling on something black and billowy to cover my still-unfamiliar body. “What do I tell them I’m doing?” I rehearsed my answers on the phone with my sister as I swept mascara through my lashes.
But I wasn’t prepared for the cadre of new parents, people my age living a life utterly divorced from the one I’d wound up in. Strollers lined the hall and the floor was filled with babies, parents hovering over them and chatting with their fellow stylish parents. I smiled some more, drank all the Prosecco I could find, and pretended that I was relieved not to be them as I recited my lines about this second-chance life. In the car, I cried the full hour from Queens to our apartment in Brooklyn, heaving as I watched the lights flash by on the bridge.
Moments of sadness like these are quickly followed by shame. I am constantly reminded that I am lucky to even be alive, by speeches like the ones on TV and by random people constantly exclaiming my luck to have been spared, but also by the deaths of people I know: a friend’s beautiful sister and mother to a toddler; an incredible musician from my hometown; a friend from cancer camp who is infinitely more kind and patient than me. It shouldn’t have been them. Should it have been me?
To be sure, in many ways, I am lucky. I am grateful beyond expression for the fact that I am not dead, and also that I had every privilege someone in my situation could have: family support, friends, financial security, a Cadillac insurance plan.
Deep down, I know there’s no good reason that I am alive instead. This only fuels my determination to at the very least appear to thrive. Otherwise, how do I justify my survival, my own second chance?
But unadulterated gratitude is difficult when the realities of life as a cancer patient, even one in remission, are factored in: scans, bloodwork, chemo, anxiety, depression, body and brain changes, worry over finances and jobs. My life, and the life of my peers, does not have the tidiness of a one-season cancer arc. Our lives keep moving, and the cancer comes with us. Our sisters get divorced, our parents get old, and our bodies continue, without an end in sight, to struggle.
In class, my anger starts to build. I’m angry that anyone could ask why I mention so many “unnecessary” details in my story, as if the only thread in my life was illness. I’m angry that the MFA girls probably don’t go to bed wondering if an itch on their leg is the cancer carrying out its promise to come back and finish them off.
While I wish the story of my first ultrasound was clean and inspirational, I know that it’s just about me muddling through my body’s betrayal. And now I’m sitting in a room filled with relatively healthy people telling me I should’ve done it differently. That my story should be less complex.
My life does not have the tidiness of a one-season cancer arc.
Would they react differently if we saw more nuanced cancer characters on TV and in movies? What would it be like to witness the day-to-day creativity and resourcefulness that it takes to manage possible recurrences, medical debt, and careers despite frequent doctor’s appointments and lingering effects; of ongoing treatment, of fertility issues or sex lives or dating? What if people could see the dark humor that brings together the young adult cancer community?
I want people to see the messy reality of growing a new self at age 32. That I can make the most of my second chance and also hate that I needed it in the first place. Gratitude and rage can live side by side, made stronger by their acknowledgement of life as it is instead of papered over with toxic positivity. I want to see Kristina in a scene like the one in Bridesmaids, when Kristen Wiig drunkenly tears apart a human-sized cookie. Show me the sometimes-hilarious, delirious rage that comes with cancer.
But right now, in the teacher’s apartment, my fatigue headache is prickling at my temples, the harbinger of a crash, and I don’t have the energy to discuss the false dichotomies of illness, wellness, and second chances. If I just wait another 45 minutes, I can collapse on my couch, my tiny dog settled on my chest while Nico, still stuck in his recurring role of caretaking husband (his agent is negotiating for a better contract, but we’ll see how next season goes), asks if I’ve hydrated enough today.
So, just like that day in the doctor’s office, I smile, nod, and go on my way. At home, I’ll say a little prayer of gratitude for my people and my beautiful, scarred life, and then rage at the world for the failure of the script. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll try to start to write a new one.
Nora Feely is a freelance writer, advocate, and social worker who studied trauma and resilience at the University of Chicago. She is from St. Louis, Missouri, the hallowed birthplace of toasted ravioli, and recently moved to the East Coast. You can find her on Twitter @nkfeely or over at her blog ButYouLookGreat.net.