Monday, May 11, 2009

Cancer On the TV

I'm watching two TV shows right now where a character has cancer. The first one is the incomparable Breaking Bad, with Bryan Cranston. His character, chemist-turned-high-school-teacher Walter White, has a form of lung cancer that — we suppose — has been brought on by long-term exposure to chemicals. The other is In Treatment. One of Dr. Paul Weston's patients, April, has Hodgkin's lymphoma. She's not telling her parents, though, because they already have such a burden at home with her autistic brother.

Yeah, right. Like there's really a way a 23-year-old student without an income can enter treatment for cancer at a major hospital in New York and not get her parents involved. Do the idiots — that's right, idiots! — who wrote this understand that one of the things they talk to you about right before you go into an infusion room is HOW YOU ARE GOING TO PAY FOR YOUR TREATMENT AND WHETHER OR NOT YOU ARE CURRENT WITH YOUR BILL?

If you didn't catch my meaning, I'll say this another way. They don't start doing a thing to you at the oncology center until they sort out how any health coverage you may have will pay for it and then they make you understand what your share of that will be. Even with insurance, it is not free of charge to you. I'm afraid that, although it makes for fascinating TV, April cannot get treatment for her lymphoma without getting her parents' bank account involved. I will say this again — before you can even set foot in the infusion room, your first stop is the financial office.

Oh, even worse, Gabriel Byrne (the therapist) does for April what she cannot do for herself and takes her to "the hospital" for chemo … if you are getting in-patient chemotherapy, you certainly are not going there under your own power or even on your own two feet, much less all alone or with some stranger (yes, the therapist is basically a stranger). No, in her case, she's getting outpatient treatment and that doesn't take place in a hospital — again, the costs are the reason why, plus, you don't need to be in a hospital. Secondly, April subsequently refers to her port, which the unnamed hospital people somehow placed in her chest while she had fainted or something, and then they pumped chemo drugs that she doesn't know the name of into her right after that. Later, right in the good Paul Weston's office, she doubles up in pain because of the port … oh, for fuck's sake.

The port installation is a surgical procedure. You are unconsious when it happens, and it happens well before you get your first infusion. It doesn't hurt. You can't feel it. It's below the skin, right under your collar bone. I've blogged about this before.

In Treatment is based on a series from Israel, and maybe this all this shit happens in Israel, but not in the U.S. of A., honey. Scripts for In Treatment are written by Marsha Norman, author of a tiresome 1970s play called 'night Mother, in which a young woman argues for five acts with her mother about why she wants to commit suicide. She also wrote Getting Out, about a woman leaving prison. I had no idea Ms. Norman was still kicking around, applying fatuous and misguided notions to some of life's most dramatic moments — you know, offing yourself, release from prison, getting cancer, the list just goes on!

I know why doctors and police officers get so disgusted with television that purports to show the drama of their respective careers. And I have attempted to gently tell people that a diagnosis of cancer and the ensuing treatment doesn't play out in real life like it does on television. There are no blinded-by-the-light moments. There are no plateaus of sweet relief and angels singing. After spending your life watching how people do this on TV, you would be awfully surprised how much the same everything — and I do mean everything — is, and how uncertain everything still feels.

This is the truth that Breaking Bad gets to. In fact, they got to it in last night's episode. The unlucky Walt White, who's chosen a path of meth manufacturing because he believes he's going to die soon, learns that the heroic efforts of his medical team have succeeded in stopping the progression of his disease. Time to celebrate! Right everybody? But he tells the party crowd his unknowing wife had assembled in honor of this occasion that, when he got his diagnosis, he thought, Why me? and that when he got news of his remission he also thought, Why me? And then he proceeds to get mean, messy drunk. He's not happy and smiling. He's more uncertain and angry than ever.

Having reached the limits of what can be done to his body, now Walt has become obsessed with cutting out the sludge and rot from his house, sawing, welding, replacing, improving, trying to make it right, get the shit out.

This is the cancer experience. This is what the real thing is like.