The finale of the Showtime series The Big C airs next Monday. Though the plot had the over-the-top characters and situations you’d expect from a cable dramedy, it was also one of the best fictional representations I’ve seen of the experience of cancer. We watched Cathy and her family deal with the ups and downs of melanoma for three and half seasons. Most recently, she entered hospice care. Considering that this last short season is titled The Big C: Hereafter, I don’t think the final episode will be a big surprise.
That doesn’t mean I won’t cry.
The Big C debuted in August 2010 and I watched it from the first episode. I got my cancer diagnosis two months later. In the “search for meaning” phase of coping with my diagnosis, I joked that I had taunted Fate by being a fan. Though Cathy’s cancer was more advanced than mine and her treatment longer and more involved, I found validation for my feelings in her struggles for understanding and the changing relationships with her family and her own body. In a culture where patients are pushed to be cheerful and compliant, it was a relief to have Cathy sometimes submit and sometimes to rage and act “inappropriately”. She wasn’t a role model, but had more complexity than the oft-seen stereotypes of the brave warrior or the serene martyr.
Of course the peripheral story lines were outrageous, but that kept the series from being an extended “disease of the week” movie while touching on real issues like alternative treatment, end-of-life quality, and the impact of the disease on people close to the patient. I spent some time this morning reading threads on cancer support forums in which other patients/survivors discussed the show and found no moderate responses: they either loved the show or hated it. Loved it for the acting, the humor, and bits that were relatable; hated it for the unrealistic (not showing enough pain and disability) or unidealistic (“she’s so selfish!”) portrayal. Either way, The Big C provoked critical thinking about the experience and some laughs, and I’m glad it was around when I needed both.
Update: Yep, watched the final episode and bawled like a baby.