Friday, January 25, 2013

A Tiny Rant: Gratuitous Cancer on Television

I've always been a fan of The Amazing Race, which is incredibly in its 22nd season. If you're not familiar with the show, it's a reality show where teams of two compete in an around-the-globe scavenger hunt. In the early days, it was an interesting mix of cultural awareness and ugly American. As its sought to outdo itself from season to season with improbable duos competing, it seems to be shopping for its cast of characters from Stereotypes-R-Us.

Among the underdog teams competing in the past, there have been couples where one person was a cancer survivor. But this season's cast includes a team with not just one, but two cancer survivors.

As a cancer patient who works at a non-profit cancer institution that counts on the generosity of donors, there's certainly a part of me that is grateful to see the cancer survivors (if we are going to use that word) competing. For one, it's a grueling kind of race and this has the potential to show that cancer survivors come in all shapes and sizes, abilities and disabilities. But I'm sure that the team will be cast as the underdog in a root-for-us-because-we-are-going-to-try-despite-our-cancer kind of way. I'm sure the cameras and close-ups will convey a sense of "Oh, wow, look at them walking and running... and they have/had cancer!" That's the identity that I would suspect many cancer survivors would be happy to avoid.

There are 13.6 million cancer survivors in the US. For some, the disease is incapacitating; for others, the treatment is almost equally debilitating, at least for periods of time. But for all of us, I suspect, we face the challenge of not letting the flood waters of disease wash away our identity. To borrow from a friend of friend, we don't want to be known as "the cancer guy" or "the cancer girl."

There's an inherent hypocrisy in a cancer blogger making that statement. I recognize that. It's akin perhaps to a comedic actor with dozens of starring comedic roles complaining that no one sees him as a dramatic actor. The navigational identity we face is allowing cancer into our lives in a way that we can control -- we need to man the floodgates, as it were -- so that it joins with the rest of us and becomes simply a part of who we are.

There's another prime-time show that has had cancer as a major story line. Parenthood, the well-done drama, a features a young (early 40s) mother with breast cancer.

I used to watch the show often, but haven't seen any of the season with this plot line. But the show has tackled some strong topics in the past and typically does it thoughtfully and honestly. For those of you who have seen the show, I'm curious how true to reality the depiction of breast cancer has been. Sensationalist stereotyping to boost ratings? Or honest portrayal to raise public awareness? I fear the former with all its trappings of circus side show, but hope for the latter.