Stories of cancer on screen are fractured, but it's better than no portrayal at all


Eleanor Longman-Rood discusses the fragmented representations of how cancer is captured on screen.

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By Eleanor Longman-Rood

Ever since my Mum was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, I have been drawn to films and television series claiming to capture the disease. To an onlooker, it may have seemed like there was enough cancer in my life already, but I needed some answers. Yet, as the inevitable credits rolled their way on screen as I finished show after show and film after film, I felt conflicted. One after the other they told a fractured story of the one I had understood to be true. Why then is cancer so complex to capture?

For one, it is impossible to discuss cancer without drawing on the treatment of chemotherapy. The word ‘treatment’ is arguably generous as the regiment is as cruel as the disease it was designed to fight. Across the board, it has been an aspect that many in the media industry have failed to capture. However, none have miscalculated more spectacularly than the writers of Sex and the City, when in the sixth and final season Samantha battles her breast cancer diagnosis. In the scene in question, the famous girl gang of Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte sit around Samantha as she receives her treatment in a plush airchair. The following minutes are filled with giggles as they collectively agree while enjoying popsicles that Samantha will “kick cancer’s ass”. When later recalling the moment, Carrie tells her partner that the experience was similar to a vacation in Miami.

Arguing that Sex and the City has not aged well is hardly a new critique. Yet, this scene in question was socially irresponsible when the episode first aired in 2004. Having sat beside my mum while she received chemotherapy, I cannot even begin to explain how off the mark this scene is. It doesn't even touch the surface of the reality of the treatment. Amongst the chatter, they neglect to mention that it involves the painful insertion of the cannula used to give the medication, debilitating nausea, and in some cases the use of an ice cap, which some patients opt to wear in the hope of being able to keep their hair. Contrary to the script, it is not an experience that can be championed with giggles and ice cream.

Hollywood often falls into the trap of romanticising cancer. To steal from the opening monologue of The Fault in our Stars, they tell the stories of beautiful people who learn beautiful lessons after being dealt the cruelest of hands. In doing this, it misses the rather ugly reality of the rage the disease creates. It is not all heartbreaking tears or heartwarming moments of progress. Sadly, this anger is not the easiest to capture nor is it as watchable.

The Big C and Miss You Already stray away from the traditional portrayal of the disease in tackling this. The Big C’s main protagonist Cathy, who is battling melanoma, takes this to the extreme by having an affair, lashing out at neighbours, and even ‘pranking’ her son into thinking she was dead in their bath. It appears no balance could be struck; patients were either saints or villains when receiving treatment with no middle ground being introduced. In contrast, Miss You Already’s Milly displays a moment of real rampage as she's met with a surprise 40th birthday party with various family members and friends in her favourite restaurant. She throws food at her guests before storming out with a bottle of wine. It’s a scene that isn't easy to watch. But the anger she displays at how normality continues around you while your life is put on hold is incredibly accurate.

There is, of course, an irony to all of this; that being that my premise is flawed. I claim that cancer in film and television will always be told as an incomplete story. Yet, I only know a fractured part of the story myself, when compared to another life affected by the disease. Where I have seen shortcomings on the silver screen, others may have found moments of clarity. And here we have our catch 22.

With the subjective and ever-changing nature of the disease, producers, writers and directors are fighting a losing battle when it comes to creating an accurate portrayal. Will there ever be a film that captures the harsh reality of cancer in its entirety? In my humble opinion, no. Does this mean that it shouldn't be attempted, or existing productions should be discounted? Also no. When a production does get cancer right, even if only for a few minutes, the comfort it provides outweighs its shortcomings. A fractured story, with all its flaws, is better than no story at all.