Can Society Go Beyond Stereotypical Portrayals of Cancer?


I agree that cancer is portrayed very stereotypically in society, so here are some ways I think we can highlight the reality of cancer.

Illustration of a woman in a blue zip-up jacket with dark gray, shoulder-length hair with round glasses, smiling with teeth.

Ever since I was first diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in 2001, I have been confused, annoyed and frustrated by the lack of accurate information about cancer in society. When I read the recent CURE blog, “Stereotypical Portrayals of Cancer” a few days ago, the words seemed to jump off my computer screen, and straight into my mind.

Why is our society seemingly so undereducated about cancer?

Is it simply that cancer is the last frontier with no cure for most cancers?

Will humans always naturally fear the latest and the least-known illness in existence?

Is it that we’d rather deny the possibility of being afflicted? Would people rather wake up each morning believing that they would never receive a cancer diagnosis?

Just a few short years ago the COVID-19 pandemic led to the widespread dissemination of scientific knowledge and advice, intended to keep the public as safe as possible in public areas, especially indoor areas. COVID-19 put our global society into an unprecedented situation. It necessitated the disbursement of as much information as possible in as short a time as possible. The resulting education of the public about COVID-19 wasn’t perfect, but it helped.

The American public could be so much more prepared to face cancer diagnoses than we are; our global society could harbor less fear of cancer; by acquiring more knowledge of the reality of the disease. With researchers and other medical professionals taking the lead in the dissemination of the reality of the disease, we must simply listen to the experts, the scientists.

However, there is another step in the process of educating the public, before cancer-themed novels, TV series or movies can send clear and accurate messages to the consumer. Those of us who have personally dealt with the reality of cancer need to tell our stories and keep telling them. Only after many of those in treatment and those who have reached the five-year survival stage have spoken or written about the human experience, can a real picture of the cancer patient be revealed.

The blogger of “Stereotypical Portrayals of Cancer” used a character from the TV series, “Bones,” to illustrate a stereotypical situation where the character, Wendell Bray, was diagnosed with cancer. In treatment, Bray suffered from so many of the most stereotypical issues of cancer patients. He received infusions of chemotherapy. Cancer patients lose their hair; Bray’s hair fell out. They vomit often; Bray had ongoing issues with vomiting.

Many, if not most, patients with cancer die in these portrayals. If not, most people believe the former patients resume their lives, as if they had recovered from a bad cold, a week or so later. Bray, however, was fortunate. He returned to his job in the show and his cancer experience abruptly came to an end. In my opinion, this was certainly not a realistic cancer scenario.

“Bones” is a fictional TV show without clear, real facts. With informative public service information about the latest cancer news/cancer reality, the TV series would have been a lot more believable; it would have provided the viewer with the reality of a viable cancer journey.

In response to the comment in the last paragraph of the blog, “I don’t know what to do about it, if anything,” I would say, “I completely agree that Americans in 2024 would greatly benefit from a more realistic portrayal of the experience of a cancer patient.”

How might that come about?

This three-part approach may be a good method to reach many people.

First, in a method similar to that used with COVID-19, cancer facts and statistics would be widely disseminated by medical professionals, then patients and survivors of cancer need to share and share their stories.

It seems totally reasonable to assume that fiction doesn’t take the lead in reality. The reality of the cancer experience must originate in the scientific community, and ultimately be passed to readers through a message in fiction writing and realistic cancer-themed novels, TV series and movies.

An understanding of cancer also makes people better able to support those with the disease, as well as help people reduce risks to preventable cancers, invaluable in cancer experiences.

Reaching the public with realistic statistics and hopeful therapies expected in the near future is probably the place to start. Those of us who have been touched by cancer can back up medical realities by telling our stories over and over, eventually leading to quality cancer-themed fiction.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.

Related Videos
Image of a woman with black hair.
Image of a woman with brown shoulder-length hair in front of a gray background that says CURE.
Sue Friedman in an interview with CURE
Catrina Crutcher in an interview with CURE