I’m Irked by the Cancer Stereotypes Portrayed on TV


From bald heads paired with lush eyebrows to the typical emaciated patient, there are certain tropes of how cancer is portrayed on TV that bother me, as they do not represent the experiences of everyone with the disease.

Although I have joined the new generation of cable cutters, I still love to stream what can best be described as “nighttime soap operas,” and my favorites are the ones in medical settings.

Over the years, I have learned a lot about bizarre diseases and miraculous recoveries, especially when they result from “hail Mary” treatments tossed into the mix in the last 10 minutes of the broadcast. But since my daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 27, the way I see patients with cancer portrayed on the small screen usually makes me want to throw something at the set.

And it’s a big, expensive TV.

READ MORE: Lights, Camera, Cancer: A Look at How the Disease Is Portrayed in the Media

First of all, while I get it that actors don’t want to shave off their facial hair for a 20-minute on-screen guest spot, seeing portrayals of bald-headed cancer patients with all their eyelashes and eyebrows or sporting a full beard while sitting in a chemo chair just makes me shake my head.

While the hair loss on top of my daughter’s head was a big hit, that was something that could be hidden from public view by a wig. It was when she lost the hair on her face that she felt the most vulnerable because no matter how artfully they are applied, you can’t fake eyebrows. Eyelashes can be glued in place but attaching them to bare eyelids with nothing for the glue to hold on to other than your skin is sometimes more trouble than it’s worth, especially if you feel like crap from toxins being dripped into your veins a day or two before.

I know that not all chemotherapy regimens cause hair loss, but there are a lot that do. An honest visual of what that means would be a welcome change and do a lot to educate the public, in particular young women undergoing chemotherapy who find their eyebrows on a makeup removal pad and look up at the mirror in shock.

Speaking of which, I very rarely see a patient with cancer on TV who hasn’t lost their hair. Many young women I am in contact with who haven’t suffered the hair loss often hear comments such as, “Well you don’t look sick” even as they are living with metastatic breast cancer and undergoing punishing treatments just to survive. I know that there are people living with other cancers who are walking that same path.

The bald stereotype creates many awkward moments, and too many times it’s the patient who is tasked with breaching the wall of ignorance. That just isn’t fair when they are already managing so much.

Another image that seems to be prominent in television scripts is the emaciated patient with cancer. While weight loss can be a signal of cancer hiding somewhere in the body, and there is sometimes a point in late-stage cancer when regardless of how much the cancer patient tries the pounds keep shedding, there are many parts of cancer treatment where the patient actually gains weight.

My daughter did lose a few pounds during the first cycle of treatment (doxorubicin or “the Red Devil”) but during the longer second cycle of Taxol, she was given steroids each time she sat in the chair, and she actually put on weight. Her face got puffy and round, her body was bloated and for the first few days after treatment, her appetite skyrocketed.

On top of that, she was given targeted hormone therapy that threw her body into menopause and her weight shifted and settled around her belly. The neuropathy that came with Taxol also meant that her daily exercise regimen of going for a long walk was curtailed because her feet and hands hurt too much to venture out.

When we would encounter people who hadn’t seen her in a while, the surprise that she was a chubbier version of herself would be written all over their faces. At that point, if she had chosen to wear one of her wigs, the only evidence that she had cancer was her hairless face. The thing she hated the most became the advantage.

Go figure.

I know that television networks hire former police officers or military veterans to help them portray the truest version of life in those professions. I think it’s high time they also hire cancer survivors to provide the same type of advice. So those of us out there who think we know what cancer is like because we watch medical TV shows can have a better idea of what we’re in for if we or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer.

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