Friends with Cancer: the big C

Filed in Gather Health Essential by on September 23, 2010 0 Comments

Two more people I know have just been diagnosed with the Big C. I’m not particularly close to either one of them, but close enough. Isn’t it funny how cancer makes such fast friends? (And in more ways than one, I might add. If you belong to The Club, you know what I mean.)

Showtime recently debuted a dramedy called “the big C” about a woman living in Minneapolis who has been diagnosed with “incurable” melanoma. It’s supposed to be funny. (The notion that there is such a thing as “curable” melanoma is kind of funny itself, but that’s the subject of another article altogether.) One quiet, gray afternoon last week, I watched the pilot episode of this show. It’s not something I’d normally do and I knew little about the show. But the recent diagnoses of my friends, among other things, probably had something to do with my sudden inclination to check it out.

Cathy, a Stage-IV melanoma patient played sincerely by Laura Linney, has decided (at least in the pilot) not to share the news of her diagnosis with anyone except the neighbor’s dog, a floppy-eared pet with undemanding and compassionate eyes. (All cancer patients should have one of those!) She has just kicked her husband, played by a charming Oliver Platt, out of the house, and it’s unclear whether or not he’ll be coming back. Additionally, her relationship with her teenage son is a bit – strained. Maybe that’s normal; I don’t know. (I never had that problem with my teenagers, but maybe we’re the exceptional ones.) At one point, her son pretends he has sliced his finger off and has a good/horrible yuk at Cathy’s expense. (OK, I’ll admit my five-year-old once scared me with a fake spider, and once with a grotesque Halloween mask which sent me reeling to the floor, but that’s as good a yuk he ever took at my expense…and I truly thank him for that, but I digress.)

After Cathy has pretty much committed herself to keeping the cancer diagnosis a secret, she comes to terms with how she plans to handle it. This happens amazingly fast (reminding us how far removed from reality the land of television really is). Not only is she going to keep her diagnosis to herself, but she decides to forego treatment. (To those outside The Club, this probably seems like a stupid plan. But Club members will understand why these options were, at least, weighed, if not exercised.)

For Cathy, as would be the case in reality, there is no “cure” for her melanoma, and treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy constitute only the possibility of a limited extension of life, with the promise of additional misery along the way. (Disclaimer: every case is different, spontaneous “remission” has been known to occur albeit amid the constant threat of recurrence, and only your doctor can give you the advice you need.) Biological therapy and clinical trials offer some hope, but again there is the quality-of-life issue.

Cathy’s plans also include having a swimming pool installed in her yard, confronting a nasty neighbor, holding her husband accountable for being an adult and, basically, not taking anymore crap from anyone. She even decides to one-up her son in the pranks department by faking suicide. Given the fact that the show is about life in the wake of imminent death, I’m not sure whether this was an incredibly tasteless plot element or a brilliant stroke of irony. (It’s not that it made me uncomfortable; it just didn’t seem right in the larger context, having just received the news about my friends with cancer and, well, knowing what I know.)

One thing the pilot got right was what appears to be Cathy’s upcoming love/hate friendship with her disease. She has to love it; it’s part of her self. She has to hate it for the same reason. But in order to maintain control over her cancer and not let it control her, she has to work with it, and it’s easier to work with a friend than an enemy. That message alone might make the show worth watching, if Linney can continue to deliver. You have to make it personal; that’s what cancer does, after all.

For those in The Club, the show is a reminder – simultaneously friendly and morbid. For others, it’s just a show (granted, with some good acting). Lots of people will watch The Big C, and may even find it quite amusing. (Linney’s breasts made several appearances and there were hints of more to come!) But the pilot episode was enough for me, Linney’s and Platt’s admirable performances notwithstanding. I got the message – and I’m passing it on with all my best to the newest members of The Club.


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