Cancer: Real Life vs. the Movies

As a film lover, one thing which I found disappointingly untrue of my experience of cancer were most film portrayals of the disease. They really are, in general, diabolical. You might not notice it so much if you've never experienced cancer first-hand, it might seem fine that most of them have a fairly predictable narrative arc guaranteed to give you a wee tear in the eye at the end. They usually go something like this: Beautiful young woman gets cancer, meets handsome stranger, has whirlwind romance, loses ten pounds and dies looking glamorous and peaceful after a few consumptive moments in the arms of her lover. It’s oh so pretty, and it’s a load of bollocks. I freely admit as a teenager I was completely taken with the cancer weepy Dying Young. (Actually I haven’t seen it in years, and to be fair what I do remember is it does at least portray some of the ugliness of the illness. Plus Campbell Scott was so hot, am I right?…).

I digress. I get why they do this, it’s Love Story, on ad infinitum repeat, until it’s watered down to little more than formulaic tripe. I can only presume that maybe some of these scripts start out with a few harder edged moments that get smoothed out in lieu of a close up of Winona Ryder looking wistfully tragic. Or Kate Hudson being the ultimate offender, the manic pixie dream girl of cancer (grr!). No one wants to go and watch the reality of cancer, it’s too ugly, not remotely glamorous, and it’s usually far from romantic. Keanu Reeves did not turn up at my door to take me on a horse and carriage ride through Central Park when I was ill (and yes I’m happily married, but had I been single I might have felt a bit jipped by the unrealistic film expectation that cancer = hot boyfriends seeking you out with a missile like accuracy for tragically doomed romance). Cancer is not sexy or romantic in any way, shape or form, let’s get real here. Does it re-enforce your love for those who matter most in ways you don’t even know how to describe? Of course. To infinity. But it is a life shattering moment, full of shades of darkness that no tinkling piano or lingering shots of autumn leaves can quite capture.

The fact that in film cancer=death is in and of itself a problem. It might seem harmless enough, but I doubt I’m the only one who may have been influenced by it somehow. When you get told you have cancer, everyone around you is encouraging you to "think positive", but inside all you can think is “Cancer! DOOM! Death!” And then …”Well, at least I will die thin.” (This might just be me, I freely admit to having this completely superficial thought – hey a girl’s gotta cheer herself up somehow when she gets told she has a cancer that kills nearly half of everyone who gets it).

Unlike in the movies I am sad to say, cancer does not make you prettier. If you are very lucky like me it makes you fat. The steroids they put you on make your face and upper body swell up like a blow fish and give you ravenous, unending hunger to counteract the three days a week you spent vomiting after chemo. Oncologists love nothing so much as a chubby cheeked cancer patient - “moon face” is the term, though it is not pretty and certainly does not make anyone the man magnet that filmic cancer heroines so often are. I gained almost two stone (28 lbs U.S. peeps!) during chemotherapy, and I am not alone. But you do not hear about this. Films prefer a girl to starve prettily, elegant and angelic in the face of death, because that's what we want to see? I mean, I was semi-permanently pissed off thanks to steroids, wearing sweatpants because they were the only thing that fit, and in a general state of unattractive physical decline. Movie cancer girls don't get to suffer for long, never mind survive, and they are expected to fade peacefully into the dying twilight where they won't trouble us anymore with their unpleasant sickness.

Credit where it is due, television of all places has really shone in portraying more honest and brave stories about cancer in recent years. The Big C was an amazingly good show and I wish everyone would watch it who hasn't already. It had so many true moments that were sometimes painful for me to watch, but I was so grateful to see something that I related to for once. It did not shy away from the ugly stuff, the loneliness, the fact that people around you just don’t get it. It came the closest to shining a light on the cancer patient’s truest battle – the slow, unspoken stripping away of one’s humanity that the disease produces, regardless of prognosis. It explored many often ignored nuances of the cancer experience. Such as the fact that everywhere you go you are being treated like some sort of frightening alien, yet also expected to be a happy, very ill Buddha by complete strangers, and even loved ones. Your cancer is not about you, so often, it is about how the world around you cannot deal with it, and how you do your best to not trouble anyone with your real feelings of abject terror and despair.

Cathy, the main character in The Big C, is portrayed by the multi-talented Laura Linney. She had the freedom of a terminal prognosis to act out in some often uncomfortably hilarious and even downright rude ways when faced with the numerous bullshit (please forgive my language, cancer makes me swear a lot!), cancerites encounter on a daily basis. And while I know this sort of portrayal can turn off and terrify the masses, it is the closest thing to the truth I have seen onscreen. If a fictional cancer tale must equal death, at least do it with a modicum of honesty. Cancer does not make us inherently angelic or heroic, the illness is not a magic wand, and trying to live up to this false image is exhausting. “You’re so brave” is something we want to vomit at every time we hear it. Or maybe that’s just me, I don’t know. Cathy was the first character with cancer who I couldn't stop (sometimes silently) shouting "Yes!" at.

The other one true thing (yeah not the crappy Meryl Streep film), that resonated with me was of all things Sex and the City. Samantha’s cancer was dealt with pretty fantastically. Was there a little bit too much comedy for some? Perhaps, but they got the heart of it right, and cancer needs all the wig waving laughs it can get in my opinion. When she is talking with her best friend, Carrie, who is being annoying and saying repeatedly “But you’re going to be fine, it’s over, you’re not going anywhere”, Samantha stops her in her tracks and says “It might come back….Please let me talk about what I’m afraid of.” I don’t think there are many cancer patients who could watch this and not relate. It’s the hardest thing in the world to say, and I wish more loved ones of cancer patients would allow them to talk about their fears instead of bottling them up for the comfort of those around them. Because on top of the cancer, this kind of stoic “bravery” can make you feel even more alone in dealing with it. We are scared, and maybe it will upset people to hear us admit it, but sometimes we just need to be heard.

I understand why it is the way it is when it comes to cancer and film, I just wish it could be a bit more realistic from time to time. Because it is so isolating, so hard for people to be honest about it with each other, the artistic portrayal of it is even more important for people who need genuine solace, not just the warm blanket and hot cocoa by the fire with Richard Gere version of cancer. The 80's film Terms of Endearment was actually a great example of how to treat the subject. It wasn’t about cancer, it was about a complicated, often fractious mother daughter relationship, which happened to include cancer. When cancer came, it totally, irretrievably sucked, with no shiny film halo. Shirley MacLaine's character broke down and screamed primally like a madwoman at the injustice of her daughter’s suffering, and I saw shades of my own mother’s quieter, lone protest late one evening to me that “It’s not supposed to be like this, you’re not supposed to go before me.” It wasn’t easy for her to say it or for me to hear it, but it was true, and we cried and hugged each other tightly and knew exactly how the other person felt. It helped us to let out a little bit of the painful truth. There needs to be much more truth when it comes to this disease, in life and in art, because it’s the only thing that gets us through it.

She had to die, so he could learn to be a better man....

Cancer: one big dreamy hay roll!

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