Not another miserable cancer story
As I write this, John Green's novel The Fault in Our Stars is still taking up the top two spots (for different editions) on the Australian bestseller charts. The movie recently topped the box-offices around the world. For those two or three people who don't know, this is a romance between two teenage cancer patients. Green, who once worked in a cancer ward, has now done rather well out of cancer, without even suffering from it. Lucky guy.
I have cancer, and so far it's only given me pain, exhaustion and huge medical bills. In fairness, it has also encouraged many people to buy me lunch, which almost makes up for having a life-threatening disease. By most accounts (but not my own, as I will explain), Green's fictitious story is a powerful one, causing millions of people to leave cinemas bawling their eyes out. Spoiler alert (but not really): it's a melancholy story - "like a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, just way, way sadder," wrote a reviewer in The New Daily. This begs the question: has this person ever seen or read Romeo and Juliet? Even the maudlin TFIOS (as the new movie is abbreviated) is not quite as miserable as Shakespeare's classic teen suicide story.
It's another movie about cancer patients accepting their inevitable early death, and living their life cheerfully, to the fullest, before heading into the eternal beyond. This seems to be the usual on-screen portrayal of cancer patients, from Terms of Endearment to Now Is Good. The heroes of these films inspire everyone with their zest for life, but they die anyway. Rarely do we get an optimistic film about cancer like 50/50, which (another spoiler alert) actually provides a happy ending.
According to medical professionals, I am helped by a positive attitude. Not "positive" that I'll enjoy my remaining years, but "positive" that I have many more to come. Such defiance, experts say, is not delusional. Quite the opposite. In most cases, cancer is no longer a death sentence. Those who expect to beat cancer are more likely to win than those who fear the worst, even if they suffer the same intensity of the disease.
This is why I haven't seen or read TFIOS yet. When you suffer from cancer, the last thing that you need to watch is a cancer movie that is so fatalistic. So I have avoided re-watching Love Story and other death-by-cancer flicks, and instead saw some of The Big C, the Showtime sitcom starring Laura Linney as a woman suffering from cancer. It recently ended after four seasons, so I safely assumed she would survive beyond the first few episodes.
It was an enjoyable character comedy but left me feeling deflated. The heroine, Cathy, has melanoma. She dismisses the offer of alternative therapy - an attitude that would please the Cancer Council - and lets herself succumb, doing numerous crazy things in her final days.
I'm a big fan of living each day to the fullest. However, I have a somewhat less stoic view of my cancer. Nowadays, a far greater percentage of people are diagnosed with cancer, but a greater number survive. None of these people ever seem to appear on television.
It's hard to name many TV cancer patients who actually survived.
Since last year, everyone's favourite television cancer patient has been Walter White from Breaking Bad, who - diagnosed with lung cancer - decides "what the heck" and becomes a master criminal. I have no plans to do anything similar, but like everyone else, I liked Walt - especially because, unlike most TV cancer victims, he has no desire to be "worthy" or "inspiring". As more and more of us are diagnosed with the big C, there is room for inspirational stories about people with a perfectly effective "never say die" attitude.
Perhaps in 20 years time, the top box-office movies will be about cancer patients who actually survive. When these movies are out, I guarantee I'll be watching them.
Mark Juddery is a writer, most recently of Best. Times. Ever. (Hardie Grant Books). He also has stage-4 cancer. As experiences go, he wouldn't recommend it.