When TV Comes Calling

One cancer survivor details protecting the story of other survivors from those who would sensationalize it.

Not long after my book, The Breast Cancer Companion, came out I got a call from one of those afternoon talk shows. I didn’t even know who the host was, so I called a friend who was a TV critic. Her response was that this was a so/so show but depending on the “hook” for the episode, it might be OK. My agent was thrilled. Great publicity. Well, we’ll see, I said.

All the women I interviewed for the book had provided the most difficult feelings about family, love, hate and mortality in regard to their breast cancer diagnosis. It was my job to protect them from any abuse from the media.

Most had never been asked to do an interview and would in no way be ready to share many of the things they had gone through. They trusted me with information and feelings that were so private they often whispered them in the interview. Knowing all that, I wasn’t going to let some television producer rip them apart.

I called the producer back and asked her about the show’s focus. She explained that they had seen my book and wanted to explore “breast cancer issues” on the show.

Be more specific, I said. What’s the “hook.”

It was clear from the pause that she didn’t like that I knew enough of the lingo to ask that. Of course, this is how most of the tabloid TV shows get guests. They tell them vaguely what they will be discussing and then whamy— when they get on the show it’s a whole new ballgame.

I had had it happen to me in one of the first interviews I did on the challenges of silicone breast implants during a time when they had been shown to rupture.

My quote said something like, “ I think we need to compare risk to benefit when choosing a breast implant,” then I went on to say, that we needed to continue to research to determine what is safe and what isn’t. Well, they cut it at the first comma, making it sound like I was in favor of using implants made of anything and everything. When this one aired the next evening on a national news show, I sounded like I didn’t know what I was doing

“What exactly is your focus,” I said again to the producer working on the new show.

“Well we know from your book that there are women whose husbands left them when they got breast cancer and we wanted to talk to them about it,” so, could I give her the phone numbers of these women.

I only had to extrapolate a little to see the rest. Yeah, and then have the husband in the wings to talk about why he left and how losing a breast had been more than any man should take. Could sex be far behind?

This was my response. Cleaned up for family reading.

“First, I don’t do tawdry. There are so many real issues of breast cancer that to focus on this is ludicrous. Second, you are wrong. Most men I have encountered would have gone through the experience for their wives. I met men torn to pieces at the inability to protect their families from this disease. I met men whose pain was so numbing that it was hard to talk to them. Yes, there are men who left their wives, but that is not the norm. They were jerks before breast cancer and in most cases, cancer just gave them an opportunity to get out in what they saw as a reason society would, in its demented way, approve of. I also think there is a special place in hell for these guys.”

I continued, “Why don’t you do a show on women who threw men out after their diagnosis. Who found the strength to get out of a bad marriage when faced with mortality? As one woman said, ‘If I am going to die, I am not going to spend my last five years with that jerk.’ And invite the men who have fallen in love with women after they had breast cancer. Men for whom breasts were insignificant when it came to the woman and her spirit and character. Invite men who married the women they loved because they didn’t want her to go through it alone.” These men I would gladly tell her about.

Of course, this was not what she had in mind. We ended the conversation there, no need for tabloid TV.