Cancer on TV: Organization Helps Writers Tell Realistic Stories

July 17, 2019
Beth Fand Incollingo

By introducing TV and film writers to patients and experts in the cancer community, the Science & Entertainment Exchange is changing the stereotypical ‘hopeless story of cancer.’

Watch a TV drama about a character with cancer and there’s a good chance you’ll see the story of someone who’s dying and feeling hopeless.

That may lend drama to the show, but it doesn’t reflect today’s survival rates or the ability of many to live a good quality of life with cancer.

Enter the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences. The mission of the exchange is to connect television and film writers with top scientists and engineers to add a realistic — but no less compelling — dimension to the stories they create.

That is important because entertainment “is an accidental form of curriculum” that, if not accurate, can leave viewers with erroneous beliefs about cancer and other medical or scientific topics, said Ann Merchant, deputy executive director of communications for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Merchant was part of a panel that spoke during a May 31 conference on cancer stories held in Chicago by The Atlantic magazine.

Gillian White, Deputy Editor, The Atlantic, with Judith Mayer, Cancer Patient and Advocate; Facebook Administrator, Breast Cancer Straight Talk; Miriam Knoll, Radiation Oncologist and Medical Director, Hackensack University Medical Center; Monica Fawzy Bryant, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer, Triage Cancer; Ann Merchant, Deputy Executive Director for Communications, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Photo by Tori Soper Photography

“Writers write what they know,” she said. “While most people probably know somebody who has cancer, that’s a story of one; they’re not educated in the larger way. What they’re often writing is a reflection of the weird echo chamber of stereotypes to which they’ve been exposed when watching TV or movies as a young person. Some of these tropes become embedded in the Hollywood mechanism of telling stories.”

The exchange works to correct this by “introducing writers, directors, producers and filmmakers to new people and new stories, because that’s how you change the narrative,” she said. “It’s about inspiration, imagery and the power of introduction. So, we bring people in whose stories are powerful (and more representative of reality), and when they hear stories like this, it’s in their heads, and this is what they write.”

When the Academy started the exchange 10 years ago, staff members “could not just ride in on a white horse and say ‘We’re here to save science and engineering and medicine,’” Merchant noted. “We did not present ourselves as the accuracy police, even though, in our heart of hearts, accuracy really matters to us. We have to be on the down low with that, and then it becomes easier to have the conversation, because they do want to get it right.”

That strategy has made the project more of a partnership between the Academy and the entertainment industry, which is “incredibly excited about telling these new stories,” Merchant said. “They live and die by stories, and that’s a treasure trove for them.”

So far, the exchange has contributed background information to movies including “Contagion,” “Prometheus,” “The Avengers” and “Thor,” as well as TV shows including “House,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Criminal Minds” and “The Good Wife.” It has also worked with a number of production companies, including Marvel Studios.

Its 52-member advisory board includes top names from both the science and entertainment industries. No less than four Nobel Prize winners are on the board: Steve Chu and Leon Lederman, both of whom won in physics; Dudley Herschbach, who won in chemistry; and Stanley Prusiner, who won in the category of medicine or physiology. The entertainment cohort includes Rob Reiner, a star of the TV show “All in the Family” and director of films including “When Harry Met Sally” and “Misery;” Seth MacFarlane, a voice actor, animator, writer and producer who created the sitcom “Family Guy;” Marshall Herskovitz, who produced the TV shows “Thirtysomething,” “My So-Called Life,” “Once and Again” and “Nashville;” and Len Amato, president of HBO Films.

With their help, Merchant said, the exchange is sharing “a diversity of stories” with those in the entertainment industry and changing the way the cancer experience is portrayed.

“The narrative of the hopeless story of cancer is one they don’t have to tell over and over,” she said. “It’s always great to have that emotion, but there’s a lot of emotion in surviving, too.”

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