Cathy Has THE BIG C — A Cancer “Comedy” That Breaks New Ground

Remember that scene in St. Elmo’s Fire when Rob Lowe’s character attends that stuffy family dinner with his friend and her mother whispers every time she says, cancer, something you absolutely don’t talk about at a normal decibel level during dinner. Come on, don’t you have any manners? Well for someone who has had cancer, lost one of her closest friends to cancer I can tell you that The Big C, a new television show that premieres on August 16 on Showtime, deals with cancer head on and loudly and I have to say with great style and humor! Because as Laura Linney, who plays Cathy, has said, it’s more about how learning you have cancer affects your life. It’s certainly a major priority changer for many people, and in   case, who has been sleepwalking through life, it’s a wake-up call. 

Believe me there is nothing inherently funny when you find out you have cancer…I can remember that day vividly and it was more than 20 years ago in my case but I can remember where my family doctor was standing staring at my X-ray, while my mother and I waited for him to speak.  “See that big mass? There around the heart and lungs,” my doctor said, “well it shouldn’t be there.”  The next day I was in the hospital for a biopsy and a few days later being prepped for a thoracotemy, a major surgery requiring four days in intensive care. I learned that I had Non-Hodgkins lymphoma. . . but my oncologist thought it could be treated.

On The Big C,  Cathy already has stage four melanoma but she hasn’t told anyone yet. Therein lies some major wiggle room for the show’s creator and executive producer Darlene Hunt and  showrunner Jenny Bicks, who created Men In Trees and was a producer/writer on Sex in the City. Since Cathy hasn’t shared her news she can truly process it and let out all of her own emotions without fear of hurting or unnecessarily worrying someone else, namely her husband and son and brother.  There were times during my own bout with cancer that I felt so awful for my mother who was with me for every surgery, chemo treatment, the good news and the bad…and I didn’t want to tell her my dark, dark thoughts because I knew this information was too much for her and would just bring her down. So, I kept a journal.

Certainly cancer has been dealt with in numerous television shows and films, Murphy Brown, played by Candace Bergen, successfully battled breast cancer in the show’s first season, but here it’s obvious that the showrunners have joined the cancer club. Bicks had breastcancer ten years ago, and she was behind the story about Samantha’s bout with breast cancer on Sex In The City, and all of the shows’ writers have had the disease or have loved ones who have dealt with cancer.

But again, while there are scenes with her oncologist the pain, laughter and drama come from the changes she makes in her life. ow time takes on a very different meaning and dealing with people who drive you crazy or trying to people please and other time draining behaviors are gone, replaced by living in the moment. For Cathy, literally in the moment. As Susan Sontag wrote about in Illness As A Metaphor, cancer becomes the motivating factor for change.

In my case, I left my job as an account executive at a public relations agency and went out on my own as a consultant, working in my home office. I later would return to my journalism roots and become a freelance writer, much to my mother’s chagrin. I also went through therapy, which I needed to do before my cancer diagnosis, but I totally related to Cathy’s uncomfortable visit to a cancer support group. As she says, “I’m more the suffer in silence type.” But by the first three episodes she does tell someone, but I won’t spoil it for you. Even though it took me a long time, partly because I didn’t want to be far away from my oncologist, Mary Muscato, M.D., Dr. Mary, as I call her, I decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue my passion for television…both as a freelance journalist and hopefully one day as a writer on a television show!

All I can say is that most great comedians are born from painful childhood circumstances or loss and there is comedy in everything…even cancer. No one is saying that having cancer or going through chemo treatments, or losing your hair and your appetite or feeling lousy is fun. I remember many a night when I would wake up at 3 a.m. and lie in the dark and think about dying. But the day-to-day, the moments of clarity and joy do matter. 

For a while I would be very angry had friends who had the nerve to call me up and whine about the flu or their cold…hey, I wanted to say…I HAVE CANCER. I lost all of my thick, brown hair. It’s not their fault, but unless you’ve had cancer you really can’t be a member of the club. Certainly some friends were afraid to visit me, too, they didn’t want to think about it… oh, if my friend can “get” cancer, then so can I.

Check out the show and let me know what you think…but don’t expect to find help with your diagnosis if you have cancer.

“This should not be your go-to place if you  have just been diagnosed with cancer as far as necessarily how to proceed,  although, in truth, we are doing a lot of research.  And as far as Cathy’s illness and how it plays out, it’s all — you know, fact-based and research-based.  But when I created this show, I thought, who doesn’t need to laugh more than someone who is dealing with cancer in any sort of way, but it’s also a show about living and not dying.  It’s a show for  everybody because we are all on borrowed time,” says Hunt. 

No matter how you handle it, whether it’s going on with your life and working and wearing a wig as I did, or prefering to be in denial as my friend did, cancer forces you to prioritize what matters. And that’s true even for those of us who tend to see the glass half empty.

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