What Popular Netflix Shows Get Wrong About Cancer

A cancer diagnosis is a very isolating event. Even if you have supportive friends and families, they still don’t really understand what you are going through. Being able to relate to other people experiencing a cancer diagnosis is so helpful for feeling less alone. Thankfully, more and more TV shows are picking up the “I have cancer” plot line but in true Hollywood fashion, the picture they paint isn’t quite masterpiece-worthy just yet.

Alexa & Katie

Image courtesy of Netflix

Take Netflix’s Alexa & Katie. They are normal 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 IRL Alexa’s type of cancer was not revealed until the second episode when it should have been told to the viewers right away. The viewers found out that Alexa has Leukemia when her dad was training for a Leukemia fundraising run.  Not only is this the only mention of Leukemia in the whole season, it was said in passing, so if you weren’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 “her iv” and the nurse references it as “her treatments”.  If you are 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 in the first episode. After that “treatment” in the first episode, Alexa went out with friends directly from the hospital, showing no signs of feeling ill.  This is far from realistic.  Days that I had chemo, I had to immediately go home to bed because the nausea kicks in pretty quickly.  It also took seven episodes to actually see Alexa have a nap due to her cancer fatigue.

To the shows 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, no matter if you are sick or healthy, young or old.
Despite it not being totally accurate, I would still highly recommend this show to my nieces and nephews. 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.

Jane the Virgin
Image from Jane the Virgin season 4 episode 16 “Chapter Eighty”

Cancer might not be the main storyline in Jane The Virgin but that doesn’t give it a pass for not getting it right. For those who don’t know, the show 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 as 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 café 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 had 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 had just finished 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 sugar coating how hard having cancer is. We see how difficult it is for Xiomara to decide which type of surgery to have. She saw herself as a sexy woman and without breasts she thought she would be losing a piece of her. 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 of surgery and chemo were 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.

Image courtesy of Netflix

Even though Hollywood is famous for upping the glamour ante, once in a while a breakthrough shows up. This is what happened when Tig Notaro, a famous comedian, opened an act with, “Good evening!  I have cancer, how are you?” This launched a Netflix Original documentary about Tig trying to have a baby post cancer through fertility treatments.

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 cancer and have similar risks to Tig of having my own baby. Seeing others going through a similar crappy situation makes me feel less alone.  I would highly recommend Tig to anyone, especially someone going through cancer.

Read more articles by Emily Piercell here

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