How can I describe what it feels like to have cancer? So many things change simultaneously when you hear “cancer” and your name in the same sentence. One of my doctors paused looked me in the eyes and slowly said, “You have cancer and it is very serious.” Now, several years later, I can smile a little at the idea of not coming down with the “non-serious” cancer. On that day everything changed. There is no single first thought. There are a million first thoughts. There is a tornado of fear, panic, emotion, guilt, and confusion.
The Best Show on TV?
How could you make an entertaining television show about cancer? Comedian and sitcom writer Darlene Hunt gets so many things right in The Big C on Showtime every Monday night it can feel like she is in the head of every cancer patient on the planet. Some things about having cancer are universal such as confused significant others, worried family and a penchant for pent up irrationality. Some things are quirky and original.
If Hunt’s writing is spot on, Laura Linney’s acting captures cancer’s emotional experience. Linney’s Cathy Jamison character pinballs off Kubler-Ross five stages of grief’s DABDA bumpers (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) in a way anyone with cancer immediately understands. As a young psychology student Kubler-Ross seemed orderly and sequential. Now the idea of order and sequence in On Death and Dying makes me laugh a little.
Cancer’s strange humor is something the Big C captures, shares and attempts to explain. How can you explain a tornado? I remember a suddenly dark Texas day when I was ten years old. Playing tetherball on a blacktop a friend shouted, “LOOK”. My eyes followed his arm and wildly pointing finger. The ball moved past me topping the steel poll. I saw a swirling, growling, and menacing blackness. The sky was alive and darkening by the second. We could see and hear a steel sheet of rain far off in front of the gathering sky. We watched transfixed as rain closed distance in seconds. We were instantly soaked. The rain woke us up and got us moving. Our gym teacher, shouting something we couldn’t hear, was holding a large steel door with one hand and furiously waving the other in circles. A quick look back before being thrown into the gym confirmed what I already knew, a Texas tornado was coming.
After receiving a cancer diagnosis hospitals and doctors create a similar feeling of safety. Like my Texas elementary school gym this feeling of safety lasts for a little while. The Big C’s first season accurately portrayed how simultaneously reassuring and confusing searching for medical solutions becomes. Hospitals have their own time. Hospital time is like Einstein’s “space-time” except hospitals slows time down. Hospital time may be the slowest unit of time in the universe. I spent last Friday waiting hours for a twenty-minute doctor-patient conversation. I’m an old pro now. I bring laptop, books and work. It is like preparing for a day trip to Canada. I clear my calendar and bring sandwiches.
The Big C understands the enormous time suck that is cancer. Linney’s Cathy repeatedly asserts herself in attempts to find some controllable routine. Cathy wants to count on something or someone even if it is the wrong something or someone. Season one’s only slightly false note was Cathy’s complete self-imposed isolation. Cancer and isolation don’t mix. Season one had Cathy creating a new family instead of sharing her cancer diagnosis with brother, husband and son. Isolation is only possible on television. In real life family, friends and support systems are the only things keeping a newly diagnosed cancer patient from jumping off the roof.
Season Two seems ready to plane out even this small nit. Cathy’s “profound” treatment in season two has Linney’s character tightening her family support system while continuing to find cancer’s strange humor. Anyone who has received cancer treatment knows farting is inevitable. Linney’s Cathy farted with elegance and grace during Season 2’s premiere last week. Alan Alda dawns a white coat again as cancer researcher and oncologist Dr. Atticus Sherman. Cathy turns to Alda’s Atticus Sherman’s clinical trail after Interleukin treatments fail to cure her stage IV melanoma.
Want to understand what it feels like to have cancer without getting so depressed you want to jump off the roof? Watch Showtime’s the Big C, smile, hug your significant others, find refuge in elementary school gyms when skies darken, and remember to laugh a little at cancer’s strange humor.