Thursday, January 22, 2009

And now for something a little bit different

I've been quiet again! Nothing bad. In fact, I've been writing plenty, only it's all been book chapters and reviews of journal articles and other scintillating fare. Work is back in full swing and if I'm not cleaning up the remains of my fall course, I'm writing or doing tedious administrative stuff, or if it's a great day, playing some volleyball. But I keep meaning to write this post, and last week's season premiere of Big Love (on HBO) finally gave me the kick in the pants I need.

I want to talk about arts and literature. Surely we've all noticed by now that cancer is a popular plot device in books, movies, TV... Sometimes it's infuriating, sometimes it's downright terrifying. There are quite a few artistic works that have been important to me during my treatment and post-cancer life, and I wanted to share them.

I'll start with the things I don't recommend so highly. You may remember that Nancy on thirtysomething got breast cancer (she got better), as did a character--Dana, maybe??--on The L Word (she died). And Samantha of Sex in the City, of course. In fact, Samantha's oncologist's name was taken from a real oncologist here in LA, the one from whom I got my second opinion. Anyway, these portrayals were fine, but they all made me cynical and annoyed just the way that Pink October does. I couldn't decide whether Dr. Susan Love's appearance on The L Word was a nice bit of public service and education, or a cringe-inducing turn by a non-actor. In either case, the Art was definitely taking a back seat to Being Important Through Breast Cancer.

While all these portrayals were just pedestrian, there is one movie that I would absolutely, positively tell anyone with cancer to fling far from them. Torch it, burn it, or if necessary run in the opposite direction. It's the movie (or play) Wit, starring Emma Thompson. Sure, an acting tour de force, but perhaps the most dire, depressing, hell-on-earth depiction of cancer (ovarian) and chemo (brutal) that I've ever seen. And nothing good ever happens, except she gets a popsicle. Seriously! This is NOT a movie for a cancer patient.

OK, now on to better things. These are still not happy, necessarily. But they are works that gave me hope and comfort and a sense of larger importance in life--even if they sometimes left me sobbing, too.

One of the books I read during my winter break was Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth. I've loved this author for a while now, and didn't even realize until I started the book that it was also on many year-end top-10 lists--but I can affirm that it deserves to be there. The latter half of the book consists of three connected short stories, collectively titled Hema and Kaushik, about two people whose lives touch briefly at a couple of points in time. I might not recommend these stories to someone currently being treated for breast cancer, or to anyone out of treatment but plagued by fears of recurrence: Without spoiling any surprises, there is a plot point involving breast cancer that isn't a happy tale. But the writing is beautiful and the stories are deeply engaging. (And by the way, ALL of her books are fantastic.)

I've mentioned, before, the TV show Battlestar Galactica (the current version, not the cheesy 70s incarnation). It's not geekdom sci-fi; it's intelligent, challenging drama. In the very first episode (a 3-hr movie, really), one of the main characters, Laura Roslin, is diagnosed with breast cancer. She's the secretary of education in her world's government, and she has to attend a ceremonial event just hours after the devastating news that her cancer is inoperable and incurable. While she is at the event (which takes place in orbit around her planet--there IS a sci-fi element), the planet is nuked to oblivion and everyone in orbit must flee the hostile attackers. When her aide finds her crying in the lavatory, she tells him about her diagnosis and says something like this: "The human race may be completely destroyed, and all I can think about is, I have cancer and I'm gonna die." Mary McDonnell, the actress, just nails it. In any case, it's not only Roslin's cancer, but the whole theme of dealing with terror and loss and existential crisis that has made this show a touchstone for me throughout cancer and survivorship.

I want to mention two shows that aren't about cancer, per se, but were also enormously important to me during treatment and shortly thereafter. The HBO miniseries Angels in America, based on the Tony Kushner play, is one of the most beautiful works of art--it's a visual poem, or symphony, not just a drama--I've ever experienced. It's full of darkness and dread, but then hope and life and determination. "But still. Bless me anyway. I want more life." These 6 hours say more profound things about living and loving than I've seen anywhere else.

The last one--HBO again; I wonder if they'll ever get back to this level of excellence?--is the show Six Feet Under. It's off the air now, but the DVD boxed set is excellent. The show deals with a family in Los Angeles (holla!) who runs a funeral home. Each week features the "DGDJ," as the folks at Television Without Pity used to say ("dead guy du jour"). The episode opens with someone's death. They run the gamut, from someone slipping in the shower; to a dogsitter racing down a hill on rollerblades, pulled by the two dogs she was sitting, and running smack into a car; to a "Jesus freak" listening to a religious broadcast, seeing a bunch of blow-up porn dolls escaping into the air from the back of a truck, thinking they were angels here to announce the Rapture, and then running out into the middle of traffic to be taken up by them. And, of course, cancer: the woman who looked pregnant with the tumor that had grown for months, that was now untreatable and killed her in a few days.

It might seem macabre or depressing to watch deaths occur every week, but I found Six Feet Under hugely reassuring. It reminded me of just how many ways there are to die, of how delicate and fragile our lives are, how vulnerable to the slightest vibrations in fate and positioning. And that reminded me of the futility of sitting and worrying about whether cancer would kill me, since there are a billion other things that could do it, too, and meanwhile I have a life to live and I need to embrace it. Just as the characters on this show did, with all their messy and dysfunctional fumblings.

Oh, and I should explain my reference to Big Love! One of the characters may be having a recurrence of ovarian cancer--which nearly killed her 7 years ago. :-( That's sad and spooky, but it was interesting to watch her immediate response, which was to sit down and tell the cancer that she was not going to let it win, and then to seize control of her own life, determined not to be a passive victim of fate or other people's whims. You go, girl!

I know this isn't a very comment-oriented blog, but I would really like to invite readers to share the stories, books, music, artwork, movies, TV shows, etc., that are meaningful to your own sense of life or to your cancer journey. I'd love to learn about more things to check out!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

T (and I haven't even read it yet!)