The Breast Cancer Storyline on NBC's "Parenthood"

Real women with real breast cancer are watching and hoping they get it right.

Posted Nov 09, 2012

It starts for her as it starts for many of us, with a routine mammogram. Kristina is barely over 40, barely of the age at which doctors recommend mammograms. The mother of three—the youngest a baby—has other things on her mind. Her oldest has just gone off to college; her middle child is running for class president, a challenge exacerbated by the fact that he has Asperger’s Syndrome; and she has a baby daughter.

So she has a lot going on and, like most of us, she isn’t planning on getting breast cancer anytime soon. But we know better. As fans of the NBC drama, "Parenthood," we know where this storyline is going. We can feel it. She will have cancer, and it will be bad.

We’re right, of course. The foreshadowing was clear enough—why show a young woman getting a mammogram if it isn’t going to lead to a new story thread?  I wonder if they are going to actually deal with the fact that there is more than one generic form of cancer and, yes, to the show's immense credit, they explain that Kristina has her/2-positive breast cancer, a fairly aggressive form only discovered in the 1980s.

This will mean that, even though her tumor is small, Kristina will need chemo.  She learns this only after surgery. She has been telling her family that all is well and treatment will be simple; now she will have to tell them that things are more complicated, more serious, more confusing.  So, those of us who have lived this scenario appreciate the precision with which it is presented—I had another form of fairly aggressive breast cancer, triple-negative, and also learned that only after surgery.  Like Kristina, I had been assuring everybody that this was no big deal—until it was.

What those of us who are watching this drama unfold are not so sure of is whether or not we want this show—one of the things we use to escape the reality of cancer—to throw the disease back in our face. Actress Monica Potter gives a wonderfully understated portrayal of Kristina, so that helps.  And the storyline was motivated by real life—show creator Jason Katims' wife has had the disease, and Potter herself had a brief scare after a mammogram.

But still, do we want this disease to infect our television as well?  Can't we get beyond cancer for just a minute, while we lose ourselves in the life of a fictional family?

And some details are clearly off.  Everybody in the surgeon's office is bald, although only chemo makes you bald and not all breast cancer patients need chemo.  Worse, the surgeon is rude and his behavior is excused.  He takes calls from other patients while he is in the room with Kristina and this, according to another patient, only shows that he cares.  No, it shows he is focused on something else rather than the seriously ill and frightened woman before him. The message:  The other person is more important than you. That's not OK on TV or real life.

On the Facebook page for my cancer book, I asked women what they thought about making breast cancer into entertainment. They never quite get it right, I said.  And I objected to the inaccuracies as well as the tragic undertone that bumped up my stress level.

"I was so nervous and uncomfortable when the issue of breast cancer came up," one reader responded. "I spent the week between the announcement at the end of the show and the new episode hoping, HOPING that Hollywood would get it right here. There were obvious errors, like the bald women who all, ironically, had beautiful eyebrows and lashes. But some of the emotions captured by Potter (confessing to a perfect stranger because she 'gets' it, telling her husband that she just needs to be scared, etc.) were accurate enough to bring me to tears."

Another wrote, "I found myself in tears watching that, remembering back the way I felt the first time I was diagnosed."

Communication researchers say that viewers can create their own version of reality based on television shows (see Shapiro and Land, Communications Research,2011) and the televised reality can seem more real than what they are actually experiencing.  That is, it might be possible that some women would see Kristina's story and, if it unfolded differently from theirs, they might consider Kristina's experience the more pertinent, and theirs somehow flawed.   They might ask, for example, if their treatment were appropriate if it differed from Kristina's. 

Women with cancer worry about everything, so if they see another scenario than the one they have lived, they wonder if they did the right thing, or if they should have made some other decision.  There are many decisions, many ways to do things wrong, many issues we can second-guess.  And that woman on television usually does things better than we do. It's bad enough she's prettier and thinner, but now she is handling cancer better.  Ooof.

But, beyond the question of effects is the issue of appropriateness.  Does cancer belong as a storyline in entertainment television?  Admitedly, if done well, it can provide important education.  For example, I have learned a great deal about Asperger's Syndrome from "Parenthood," from the storyline of Kristina' s middle child.  I have not, however, researched the issue enough to see whether or not what I have learned is accurate.  The risk is that if a television show gets one detail wrong, it can't correct it, and that might be the detail that we believe to be true and important and real.  The scene with Kristina's doctor paying attention to other patients rather than to her, by being presented as acceptable behavior, could mean that women who watch the show might allow their own doctors to treat them in a similarly dismissive manner, which I think is contrary to good patient care.

Worse, though, is the stress a show can add to a patient's already stressful life.  I am six years past diagnosis and should be fine, and I certainly worry less about recurrence than women closer to diagnosis.  But we all worry.  So when Kristina gets sick, it is another thread in our own little stressed-out storyline, it makes us cringe, it makes us cry.  While some of this might be cathartic, to me it is a little maddening.  I want to be able to relax and not have to worry that even my fictional friends get sick.

The discussion on my Facebook page ended with a question from a reader, which gets to the detail with which real women with real breast cancer are dissecting this show: "Does anyone know if she was still breastfeeding the baby when diagnosed? That is something I'd like to see addressed some day—how traumatic it is to have to stop breastfeeding (or not getting to at all) due to breast cancer."

Kristina may be fictional, but we still worry about the real details with which we all have to cope. Did Kristina have to wean her baby? Will they deal with it if she does? How will she handle it?

We watch anxously, wishing Kristina the best, even though we do honestly know she is not real. Mainly we hope they do get it right, because cancer is not all that entertaining for those who have it in real life.

Copyright Patricia Prijatel