Cancer is a very annoying disease, especially when repeated. I recently had more skin removed after a suspicion of approaching melanoma on my face and basal cell on my right arm. That's a third and fourth time, for anyone who's keeping score. Stitches start to come out in another day.
An initial diagnosis requires some great marshal of forces to beat the murderous cells back, maybe drive them away for good. During that first big wave of realization, there are a lot of people to tell and information to gather.
Facebook updates make it possible to tell a lot of people without having to hear the mournful sigh everyone gives off and the pitiful look as every part of their face pulls downward. Imagine getting that look a hundred times over beamed directly at you because of some part of your body. I've been stopping people before they can get to a full-blown wave of sympathy.
There's a new show, "The Big C," on Showtime (Mondays at 10:30 p.m.) that knows exactly how I feel. The series centers around Cathy, played by Laura Linney, who has been diagnosed with 4th stage melanoma and a grim prognosis. During round one last November, I was told there was a high likelihood that was my fate and for two weeks, I got to ponder the thought of checking out of here. Fortunately, the lymph nodes were negative and I was downgraded to level 2 and went back to the living.
However, Cathy's not going to have it that easy and it's messing with her life. "Cancer takes up a lot of emotional space in your life," said Jenny Bicks, one of the executive producers, the show runner for the series and a survivor of breast cancer. "But your reality doesn't stop. You can put all of it in a box when you're feeling good, but it's always there." The struggle between those two realities is what makes this show so good and even cathartic.
Cathy's scar is on her back where no one can see and she makes the initial decision to tell no one including her husband, son or homeless-by-choice brother. Instead, she does her best to break out of her routine and figure out what matters. The story-lines are genuinely funny, edged with a trace of anger and Linney shows a woman with a real desire to try and do a better job of being loving without having to be so nice.
What makes the series click is that Cathy is unable to get away from just being human. Nothing goes right and instead of a grand gesture of building a swimming pool in time to teach her son a banana-split-then-dive, she's left with a big hole after a neighbor turns her in for not having a permit. She tries to join a support group and they end up tracking her down and forming themselves into a very cheerful ad hoc "Team Cathy" whether she likes it or not.
Underneath it all, though, she knows there's a timer going off that she can't ignore so she tries again. It's in this middle space where the show has found a sweet spot that has given voice to how cancer patients really feel on any given day and may just show a lot of us how to struggle just enough to be heard.
Cancer, and melanoma in particular, was chosen as the vehicle to get people to look at the high price of being so nice because there are elements to cancer that make the experience so peculiar. "There's so much pressure on cancer survivors to be inspiring," said Bicks. "There's not on other diseases, which pisses me off."
I know what she means. My inspirational muscles are tired. The stitches ache, the giant band-aid on my face is blocking some of my peripheral vision, I can't use my right arm for awhile and the recovery is taking longer than I have scheduled. Just for today, I'm all out of grace, and thank goodness.
Just like Cathy I find myself finally saying a lot more of what I'm really thinking. It's like I can't help myself anymore, and with this last diagnosis, the internal "nice girl" packed up and moved.
Here's where the inspiration may squeeze its way in to the whole cancer experience, anyway. "Cathy is getting the chance to both figure out who she is and reclaim who she was when she was younger," said Bicks. Imagine if that was your goal today and nothing could persuade you from that path. Then, everyone around you would get the chance to finally know you from the inside out with nothing left out. That time that's been spent trying to figure out the right thing to do would then become an empty space waiting to be filled with what really mattered. More adventures to follow.
Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail Martha at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.