Cancer in the Media: Loving and Hating Grey’s Anatomy

Cancer in the Media: Loving and Hating Grey’s Anatomy

I started watching Grey’s Anatomy a few months ago, starting with Season One. I’m now well into Season Five. Some days this medical soap opera grates with its shallowness masquerading as big ideas. But, other days the show brings me to my knees.

In one scene, a patient has to be conscious during surgery and Izzie Stevens, played by Katherine Heigl, a resident on the patient’s team, is tasked with helping him cope psychologically with the situation.

We see Izzie shuffle into an empty operating room and look around. She goes to the operating table, climbs up and lays down, her eyes now seeing what the patient will see. She takes in the equipment and instruments, the scalpels and tubes. She looks up at the gallery where a dozen students will watch the surgery.

In response to what she sees, our sensitive and gorgeous young doctor hangs photos of birds (the patient is a bird lover), which will guide the anxious man to look at what he loves instead of at what he fears.

The scene is one of my favorites, and if I could, I would take it to each and every one of my doctors. It’s not just that Izzie sees what her patient will see. It’s that she thinks to try to see what her patient will see.

If I could, I’d ask my doctors to have the tests that I have, to have an important conversation while lying in a bed dressed in a backless gown, to lie alone in a corner of a frigid pre-op holding pen listening to muffled voices.

Of course, it’s not just doctors that need to this. We all need to see the world from another’s perspective. One of my graduate school teachers, a well known academic, wrote every paper that he assigned students in his first-year composition course. The experience changed his teaching. I once registered for a course at the University of Tennessee, where I taught in the English Department. I learned firsthand the bureaucracy my students dealt with and why they called it “the big orange screw.”

But, Grey’s Anatomy gets so much wrong. I do know that it’s “just” a television show, that it’s fiction, entertainment. I get that, and I enjoy it most of the time. But I also know that many Americans know what they know about health care because of shows like Grey’s Anatomy.

Viewers know that real doctors don’t often look like the Grey’s Anatomy actors, but I fear that many people see the way cancer is portrayed on the show and accept it as fairly accurate. Cancer is a cataclysmic event with clearly defined borders as told by Grey’s Anatomy.

In a recent episode, surgeons find a tumor in a patient’s stomach. They tell her family that it was stage one, that they got it all, and that she’s cured. Diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis happen in less than one Seattle day.

No doubt the show could not sustain a realistic portrayal of cancer, with its waiting and hours of treatment and months of testing and check-ups. It’s also true that some tumors can be removed and may be the only necessary treatment.

However, Grey’s Anatomy persistently represents cancer as a singular event, cured by surgery or considered terminal because surgery isn’t an option. Neither I or any of the people with cancer that I know personally have been cured by surgical intervention alone (and the word “cure” isn’t a common one to hear in the cancer community).

It hurts to see cancer portrayed this way because I know far too many people with cancer whose lives in no way resemble this story line. Most cancers are slow, episodic, and chronic. They’re filled with tedium, day-long infusions, boring tests, hours waiting for results and always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Cancer isn’t cataclysmic. It isn’t an earthquake or a hurricane. It is, instead, poison leached into ground water that does its work slowly and secretly.

Even those I know with stage four cancers aren’t experiencing cataclysms. Cancer is eating through them relatively slowly, destroying their bodies and minds. It sends them to the ER in the middle of the night for IV pain meds and then into surgery to remove a blockage and then home to rest on a couch without the energy to play with their children.

It matters to me that shows like Grey’s Anatomy at least try to tell realistic stories because these are the stories that people hear and that shape their understanding of disease. People need to know that cancer isn’t one sudden, violent upheaval that can be cured by one valiant hero with a scalpel.

People need to know that when they, their parents or spouse or children or siblings are diagnosed with cancer that the experience is a marathon and not a football championship. The point of cancer isn’t to “win.” It’s to “finish” and to “endure.”

Cancer is more about coping than it is about cure.

It’s well and good that Derek Shepherd, Dr. McDreamy, is a neurosurgery god. There’s no doubt that the world does have and need such surgical gods. They perform magic that sometimes takes a sick person and returns them to a world of health and vitality.

I’m at the point in Grey’s Anatomy, Season Five, where Izzie has just revealed that she has metastatic melanoma. I’m glad the writers chose this type of cancer because skin cancer is one of the “not that bad” kinds that people often dismiss. I’ve also heard that they deal more realistically with her cancer, which I look forward to.

Here’s hoping to see a story line that educates as well as entertains.

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