Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s perspective.
A cancer diagnosis can be a very isolating event. Even if you have supportive friends and family, they still don’t really understand what you are going through. Being able to relate to other people living with cancer can be incredibly helpful for those looking to feel less alone.
As more and more TV shows are picking up cancer as a plot line, it seems that maybe they’re trying to help people “relate.” But in true Hollywood fashion, the picture they paint doesn’t always match up with the real-life version.
Alexa and Katie are typical teenage best friends who are about to start high school when Alexa is diagnosed with cancer. She now must navigate cancer treatments and side effects with the drama of high school.
Unlike real life, Alexa’s type of cancer is not revealed until the second episode, when it should have been shared right away. Viewers find out Alexa has leukemia when her dad is training for a leukemia fundraising run. This is the only mention of leukemia in the whole season and it is said in passing, so if you aren’t paying attention you’d probably miss it.
In the first episode, Alexa is seen with an IV in her arm — which she references as “my IV” and the nurse references as “her treatments.” If you’re going to make a show about a teenager with cancer, you should be able to speak about the specific cancer treatments and side effects in detail instead of just glossing over them.
The season rarely shows Alexa feeling sick or displaying any side effects from her treatments, other than losing her hair. After that “treatment” in the first episode, Alexa goes out with friends directly from the hospital, showing no signs of feeling ill. This is far from realistic. On days when I had chemo, I had to immediately go home to bed because the nausea kicked in pretty quickly. But back in Hollywood, it took seven episodes to actually see Alexa take a nap due to her cancer fatigue.
To the show’s credit, they did get some stuff right. This is a wholesome show for tweens showing the importance of your tribe. Alexa and Katie’s friendship is so supportive and loving. It is the kind of friendship that everyone strives to have in life, sick or healthy, young or old. Alexa has major obstacles that she must overcome, and she does it all with the help of her friends and family. It is strength that anyone could learn from.
Cancer might not be the main storyline in “Jane the Virgin,” but that doesn’t give the show a pass to not get it right. For those who don’t know, the series is an American adaptation of a telenovela about a young woman who is a virgin and gets accidentally artificially inseminated (perhaps the first clue that the show isn’t so much fact-based).
In season four, Jane’s mother, Xiomara, is diagnosed with stage 3 invasive lobular carcinoma (breast cancer). Points scored for naming the cancer.
Here’s my gripe: It seems like every show that has a character with cancer must have a clichéd outgoing “seasoned” cancer patient as a friend. “Jane the Virgin” is no different. At Xiomara’s first chemo session, she meets Donna, who is bubbly and getting chemo in the next chair. We don’t find out Donna has breast cancer until a scene in a cafe that revolves around Xiomara feeling her implants.
Fast-forward to the end of the episode (after a few weeks have passed), and Xiomara is looking for Donna at her chemo session when the nurse tells her that Donna had a recurrence and passed away. Xiomara is obviously distraught over this news and the realization that there is no finish line with cancer.
She tells her husband that Donna was “good” for five years, then had a recurrence. But if she really was “good,” why was she in chemo and just finished with radiation (her skin was still hot when Xiomara touched her implants)?
The show needed a “cancer friend” to show Xiomara the ways of cancer, but also needed her to pass away to snap Xiomara out of her delusion that cancer was just a blip in her life. This storyline doesn’t respect the audience’s intelligence or knowledge of cancer.
What they did get right was the absence of sugarcoating how hard having cancer is. We see how difficult it is for Xiomara to decide which type of surgery to have. She sees herself as a sexy woman, and without breasts she thinks she’ll be losing a piece of herself. This is exactly how I felt before my mastectomy.
Everyone has a different relationship with their breasts, and until you are in this situation, you don’t know how hard it is. It was very real to watch Xiomara struggle with this decision as I did when I had to say goodbye to my breasts.
Xiomara’s physical side effects from surgery and chemo are also realistically shown. After her mastectomy, we see her drains pop out of her shirt and her family emptying them. I had never seen drains until I had them myself. The chemotherapy sessions start taking a toll on Xiomara about nine weeks into her treatments, and she looks like a different person. I remember looking at myself in the mirror during this time in my life and not recognizing the person looking back at me.
As a viewer and someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer myself, I appreciate the honesty that “Jane the Virgin” brought to this storyline.
Even though Hollywood is famous for upping the glamour ante, once in a while a breakthrough shows up. This is what happened when comedian Tig Notaro opened a stand-up act with, “Good evening! I have cancer, how are you?”
This launched a Netflix Original documentary that follows Tig as she goes through fertility treatments and tries to have a baby post cancer.
I watched “Tig” during my year of cancer treatments and laughed and cried throughout the entire documentary, which was so refreshing during the hard times. Trying to have a baby is such a personal decision, and I really appreciated her letting the world watch this difficult and emotional process.
I also had a hormone receptor positive (HER2-positive) cancer and have similar risks to those Tig experienced.
Seeing someone else going through a similar crappy situation made me feel less alone. I would highly recommend “Tig” to anyone — especially someone going through cancer.
This article originally appeared on Rethink Breast Cancer.
Written by Emily Piercell for Rethink Breast Cancer. Rethink Breast Cancer’s mission is to empower young people worldwide who are concerned about and affected by breast cancer. Rethink is the first-ever Canadian charity to bring bold, relevant awareness to the 40s and under crowd; foster a new generation of young and influential breast cancer supporters; infuse sass and style into the cause; and, most importantly, respond to the unique needs of young women going through it. By taking a breakthrough approach to all aspects of breast cancer — education, resources, advocacy, community building, and fundraising – Rethink is thinking differently about breast cancer. To find out more, visit rethinkbreastcancer.com, or follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.