Cancer as Comedy? Medicine Meets Entertainment in 'The Big C'

Anita T. Shaffer @Shaffer1
Published: Saturday, Apr 16, 2011
Laura Linney and Reid Scott in The Big C.The opening song for the new Showtime series, The Big C, asks, “Is this some kind of a joke?” No one associated with the show thinks cancer is funny. But they do think a dark, comedic treatment about a patient with cancer has something to say about how we react to the disease.

Like many Americans, actor Reid Scott knows what it feels like when a loved one fights a losing battle against cancer. He was a teenager when his grandfather died of mesothelioma, and he was a young actor living in New York City when a college friend succumbed to the disease after a lifelong struggle.

Those ordeals are among the “back stories” that Scott says helped him internalize his role as television’s most visible oncologist this season. Scott plays the boyish Dr Todd in The Big C, Showtime’s dark comedy about a stage IV melanoma patient.

Scott knows that cancer is no laughing matter, but he feels the show’s boundary-pushing personas allows for a fuller exploration of the cancer experience.

“So many times—and I [completely] understand why—this sort of subject matter is addressed purely as a tragedy or purely as a drama. For lack of a better term, they sort of construct them as tear-jerkers,” Scott said in a recent interview with Oncology & Biotech News. “I don’t think that’s necessarily the entire experience. I know from personal experience, when my grandfather was battling and when my friend, Mark, was battling, we laughed a lot. We didn’t necessarily poke fun at the situation, but you have to find some humor.

“So I think in a strange way, having a show that deals with cancer in the context of a dark comedy—I think that’s almost more human than just approaching it as a straight-up drama or straight-up tragedy,” he said.

That view of the cancer experience is striking a chord. The ambitious effort to portray the cancer journey of one fictional patient marks an intersection of medicine and entertainment that has attracted widespread attention from oncology healthcare professionals, cancer survivors, and audiences.

More than 6.5 million people watched the mid- August premiere episode across various platforms, and Showtime officials announced in September that the series has been renewed for 2011. If produced as planned, the story will unfold over 6 television seasons, depicting 18 months of the main character’s life in segments that coincide with seasons on the calendar.

Laura Linney, a three-time Academy Award– nominee, heads the cast as Cathy Jamison, a suburban schoolteacher in her early 40s who dramatically changes the way she lives her life when she learns she has cancer. She goes from being a reserved wife and mother who prizes a well-kept house and cringes when her son curses to someone who rips up her front lawn to install a swimming pool and pushes the envelope in new relationships—including the increasingly personal one with her physician.

“For me, the show is all about time and what time we have and how we choose to use it,” Linney said in an interview with Showtime. “Equally important to me is looking at the privilege of aging. I hear so many people complaining about getting old; being shamed about the age on their face, not wanting to live a period of time in their life, wanting to move back in time. And, you know, aging is a tremendous privilege. I hope the show really explores that message because we’re very lucky to move into the different phases of our life.”

“People come up to me and say, ‘How are you going to do a comedy about cancer?!’...It’s not really a comedy about cancer,” she said. “It’s a comedy about a woman who has cancer and there’s a big difference. When anyone is dealing with change or a huge challenge, life has a way of not allowing you to be too serious about it.”

the big C season one

Media Portrayals Affect Public Perceptions

Considering the number of people expected to be grappling with cancer in the coming decade, millions of Americans will likely face life challenges similar to those facing the characters in The Big C.

The number of cancer survivors, defined as cancer patients from time of diagnosis until death, is estimated to be more than 11 million people today, and it is expected to hit 20 million by 2020, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Meanwhile, the incidence of melanoma continues to rise, with about 68,130 new diagnoses estimated for 2010, the ACS says. While 5-year survival rates for melanoma are >90% in the earliest stages, the 5-year survival rate drops to 15% to 20% for those with stage IV diagnoses.

With celebrities leading the way, cancer patients are increasing willing to share their stories, in many cases serving as ambassadors for nonprofit organizations.

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