You know that special kind of radar that turns on when you buy a new car? That 6th sense that draws your attention to every other dandelion-yellow Kia Sorento on the road? Yeah, that. That thing that won’t let you ignore that fact that the vehicle you just purchased, whatever it is, is most certainly the most popular vehicle in the entire world.
Cancer survivors develop a similar sense, only instead of having our focus drawn to similar mid-sized sedans with excellent handling and reliable gas mileage, our antennae rise at the mention of cancer. Every time it’s used as a plot device in a film, or a lyric in a song, or listed as a side effect in a medication commercial, it’s as if someone is sitting directly next to us yelling into our ears with a megaphone.
It wasn’t until I got sick that I noticed how often cancer is written into scripts to add a tragic element to a main character. Just the other day I sat down to watch the movie The Shallows, which is a fairly generic film about a young woman who’s in a heated feud with a very large shark while stranded on a very small island. At multiple points in the movie, the viewer is treated to brief glimpses of the main character’s background via flashback scenes. The majority of these scenes revolve around her mother’s death some time before the events of the movie. I’ll give you one guess how the mother died.
Yup. You guessed it.
The most offensive instance of this phenomena was in the movie Before I Wake. As a long-time lover of the horror genre, I’ll buy a ticket for pretty much anything that involves zombies, monsters, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, mummies, blood thirsty animals, or Nicolas Cage (his movies are as scary as they get). This particular film was about a little boy whose dreams – or nightmares – became reality. It’s a pretty cool gift the first time he dozes off and fills the house with a kaleidoscope of butterflies, but when the pale, skeletal creature from his recurring nightmare takes form and begins killing the people around him, everything changes. It wasn’t until the last few minutes of the movie that we got the big reveal: the monster from his dreams was an approximation of his mother, who was on her deathbed dying of cancer the last time that he saw her. Awesome.
And then there was the only time that I ever walked out of a movie. When I first saw the trailer for Creed I was filled with excitement. It was the continuation of the Rocky saga starring one of my favorite young actors, Michael B. Jordan. Sylvester Stallone was back and as difficult to understand as he ever was. There was even a song by my favorite rapper playing in the background. I was ready for a coming-of-age story that revolved around Rocky Balboa and the son of his greatest nemesis-turned-best-friend. What I wasn’t ready for was watching Rocky battle the exact same form of cancer that I was battling. It’s been over a year since I sat in that theater, but I still don’t know how the movie ends.
I know this might sound like a criticism of the movie industry, but I promise that it’s not. I understand why cancer is so frequently the first choice when searching for a tragic plot device. With millions of new cases diagnosed every year, nearly all of us have battled it or watched someone that we care about battle it. Cancer is one of very few words that can be spoken once and instantly form a connection between a character and the audience.
And there’s also the visual element. We all have an idea of what cancer looks like. While it may not necessarily always be accurate, that trademark cancer look is something that is recognizable and easy to recreate. Shave an actor bald or throw a scarf on their head and there you have it: a deluxe cancer patient costume.
With that said, I’m not asking for a complete halt on using cancer in film. But would it be that hard to give us a little variety? What about more juggling accidents or deaths by constipation?
Or, how about more images of the other side of cancer. The side where people get better, hair grows back, and our kids are resilient and not just plagued by nightmares or the desire to fist-fight sharks.
Take it from someone who has seen it up close and personal, Cancer isn’t only tragedy. Trust me.