THE BLOG
03/06/2013 12:36 pm ET Updated May 06, 2013

Cancer in the Media: My Missed Chance at Potential Therapy

When I was still going through chemotherapy (up until a mere month ago), people would ask me if I watched shows like AMC's Breaking Bad. They questioned if I'd caught the movie 50/50 back when it was in theaters two years ago. They made uplifting comments about potentially meeting a cute guy during outpatient chemotherapy like Taylor Ambrose, the boyfriend character in Jodi Picoult's novel My Sister's Keeper (and the mostly-awful movie adaptation with Cameron Diaz). I understand where everyone was coming from in these analogies and references -- for someone without cancer, or without real experience of a loved one suffering through it, the media's portrayal of it is the closest they get. And let me tell you, cancer is a huge, HUGE topic in the media. Up until a week ago, I spent far too much of my energy avoiding it. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong.

So many movies, books, TV shows, and news stories have plots or sub-plots related to cancer. Even hospital scenes were hard for me to watch or read about, after spending so much time in and out of one. It wasn't that I wanted to see something so painfully familiar to me. The real reason was that I didn't want to see something unfamiliar. I didn't want to get a wrong impression of how potentially easy or hard cancer was going to be for me by watching movies. Those stories, from what I'd seen before, were either super-heartbreaking or super-uplifting. There was no middle ground. And while I was hoping for an outcome very much like those uplifting ones, where the patients keep their hair and don't ever feel nauseous and still look movie-star gorgeous in a hospital gown, I knew that wasn't reality. So I just avoided all forms of cancer in the media for three months.

It was hard. There were times where I'd start watching something and be surprised to discover (or remember, in the case of re-watching movies) that there was a sub-plot involving illness, or cancer specifically. I didn't even try to stomach it in most cases -- I'd just turn it off and find something else to watch. When that wasn't an option, I'd just automatically tear up and let myself cry over it, whether it was sad or not. The act of focusing on crying kept me from actually watching the cancer-related parts, and I was fine after half an hour or so. It happened all too often that I'd turn something off or skip over it entirely, claiming I "couldn't handle it."

A week ago, I made the decision (after weeks of my friends nagging me to watch it) to sit through all of 50/50. For those who haven't seen it, the movie centers around 27-year-old radio writer Adam's life and how it's turned upside-down by a rare malignant tumor that's wrapped around his spine. He undergoes chemotherapy and surgery, deals with a difficult romantic relationship, and struggles with his family and friends throughout his months as a cancer patient. I was nervous to watch it at first, but I reminded myself that I was done with chemotherapy, and with surgery. All of that was behind me.

In that hundred minutes of watching, I was transported back to my days in the hospital, in the doctor's office, on my parents' couch, and out with friends and family between treatments. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's portrayal of a cancer patient is super realistic, and, oddly enough, charmingly humorous. It's quite a feat to make cancer funny, and Will Reiser, the screenwriter who based the story off his own fight with cancer, accomplished it beautifully. The scene before Adam goes into surgery had me absolutely bawling -- I know what it's like to be that terrified, to hug your mom while shaking with the fear that you'll never wake up to see her again. I know what it's like to wake up at 2 a.m. to hurl up the entire day's food intake. It was familiar, yet unfamiliar -- and I was okay with it.

I'm not avoiding cancer in the media anymore. I've got a copy of John Green's The Fault in our Stars on my bookshelf waiting to finally be read, and I watched Grey's Anatomy just last week with no problem whatsoever. And now that I'm letting myself be exposed to cancer-related plots, I wonder if I really ever had a problem with it to start. Maybe it would have been therapeutic to watch the shows and movies and read the books, and to know that they exist because other people have suffered and survived before I did, and unfortunately many will suffer after me. Maybe I would have found solace in the stories of Laura Linney on The Big C and Monica Potter on Parenthood. But hey, it's never too late, right? I'm still a survivor -- I can still empathize and be grateful that I made it to the other side to enjoy those movies and books.

So, does anyone have Season 2 of Breaking Bad on DVD for me to borrow?

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