The issue when television and film distort the reality of breast cancer, and why directors must capture it accurately.

Image by Lauren St. Clair
Image by Lauren St. Clair

No two victims of Breast Cancer have the same story. Yet, they all stories feature the horrific amount of trauma the disease inflicts. While it may or may not have beaten you, it will have left scars. This has attracted television and cinema to attempt to capture the disease on screen. But, what happens when what we watch creates a fantasy of the disease and distorts its reality?

When treating this type of cancer there are several approaches to surgical options. There’s a lumpectomy, a mastectomy or a double mastectomy, and then there’s the whole other story of whether this is to be done before or after chemotherapy treatment. There is vast debate about how this surgery fits into a woman’s feminist beliefs and journey. You might have heard of author Lizzie Stark’s piece about mastectomies as a betrayal to feminism. Stark herself underwent a mastectomy after a blood test revealed she had the harmful BRCA1 gene.

Here’s the thing, feminism is important, but so is staying alive. But this does not make process of removing your breasts, or part of them, easy or simple. The women facing this struggle are about to lose a part of themselves, and in my experience with the disease, feminism is not a part of their thought process at this moment. To imply otherwise is an injustice to this huge surgery. The 2015 movie “Miss You Already” succeeds in tackling this. Milly, an eccentric character who is coping with the news of needing a mastectomy, gets extremely drunk and reveals her concerns surrounding her individuality to her best friend. Obviously, not everyone responds to the news in this way, but the movie does capture a women’s fear of losing a part of her.

Chemotherapy is an issue that adaptations can’t avoid when taking on stories of breast cancer. This is a treatment where the patient is pumped full of poison to kill the cancer cells, yet they also affect healthy cells in the body, making you very ill. In a moment of heartbreak for viewers, the show “Sex and the City” failed so spectacularly at capturing the trauma behind this. The episode shows feisty character Samantha receiving her treatment with her 3 friends surrounding her, giggling about each other’s boyfriends and licking on popsicles, which survivor and novelist Meredith Goldberg called “unrealistic”. If this isn't enough of a kick in the teeth, the character Carrie later exclaims how if “you throw in shuffleboard it would be like a vacation in Miami!” When I accompanied my Mum to chemo treatment, if we had gone round the exemplary Cancer centre, The Royal Marsden Hospital, looking for a room with Carrie’s description we’d probably still be wandering the halls. As someone who has sat in a chemotherapy room, this scene could not be further from the truth and is a vast disservice to those who have experienced the treatment.

Image by Lauren St. Clair
Image by Lauren St. Clair

Breast cancer does not end on the last day of treatment. The medication patients are prescribed can have side effects for many years to come. For example, Tamoxifen, which is used to prevent the cancer cells returning, can cause early menopause with increased symptoms. Ironically, in the same series this is an issue “Sex and the City” does get right. While having to give a speech at an event, Samantha is clearly suffering under the debilitating hot flushes women can face. In a moment of frustration, she throws off her wig and dabs herself with her notecards while the fellow survivors in the crowd begin to applaud and join in. This scene often brings a tear to my eye as it accurately depicts an aspect of life after breast cancer.

Perhaps, due to this sense of individual experience, directors and producers are fighting a losing battle when creating an adaptation portraying breast cancer. How Hollywood approaches breast cancer is highly complex, and one article cannot possibly encompass the whole picture. All I know is these women are the real embodiment of strength in the face of darkness. Out of respect, producers must be make it a priority to capture their stories accurately.