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Crabby Old Lady and Cancer on TV

When something newly interests us, we naturally become more sensitized to it. We pay more attention, we notice it more and like Crabby Old Lady recently, may wonder if it is just her or is there a lot more on television these days about cancer?

Even if she's wrong, it feels that way and a lot of it is disturbing.

What comes to mind first are those commercials for the various cancer-only treatment centers in cities around the United States, some of them for-profit chains. They and others spend a lot of money chasing after new patients via TV commercials and not infrequently run half a dozen of the same commercial in a single one-hour program.

Crabby supposes there is nothing wrong with that in a capitalist economy where many lawmakers and citizens believe healthcare is a privilege and not a right. What she objects to is how the commercials try to make viewers believe that if you travel to their hospital, you will be cured of cancer.

Most of us, Crabby included, don't pay close attention to TV commercials – usually just enough to fit into the periphery of our minds while we think about something else and that's where the producers create their edge, counting on viewers to hear the music and not the lyric.

Of course, when you listen word-for-word, they don't use the word cure. But most of us get the general impression of becoming cancer-free that they intend us to hear.

You will have to trust Crabby on that or track down some commercials online for yourself because Crabby cannot bear to watch them anymore. She is all too aware these days, given her own cancer, how cruel it is to imply a cure when none can or should be promised.

A couple of facts: in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health, cancer is the number two killer after heart disease; just under 600,000 people a year die of cancer. During their lifetimes, about 40 percent of Americans will be told they have cancer.

Those are large numbers but that doesn't mean progress in treatment isn't being made. As The Economist reported in September,

”Cancer has become more survivable over recent decades owing to a host of advances...The survival rate for leukemia in America has almost doubled, from 34% in the mid-1970s to 63% in 2006-12...

“Caught early, many cancers are now highly treatable. Three out of four British men who received a prostate-cancer diagnosis in the early 1970s did not live for another ten years; today four out of five do. Other cancers, such as those of the lung, pancreas and brain, are harder to find and treat.”

In her heightened state of awareness, Crabby has also wondered if more TV dramas aren't making cancer a plot point. She first noticed what appeared to be an uptick over the summer and only this week started making note of incidences. Just a few days ago she jotted down this line from a show whose name she doesn't recall:

“He had pancreatic cancer. The doc said he'd be dead in a few months.”

Oof. Dear god in heaven, do we have to say such things so starkly? Crabby wonders.

Well, of course we do. Writers should use whatever knowledge and information they have to move the story forward and not pull punches while they're doing it.

But here's the difference: The drama writer is stating a a well-known fact. It reinforces belief in the veracity of the story making it more immersive and, the producers hope, bring more viewers leading to larger profit.

The commercial writer, on the other hand, is trying to fool viewers by implying that there is a happy outcome to cancer treatment every time. Also for profit.

Many of the cancer centers – profit and non-profit – are involved in important research that over time moves the needle forward on cancer discoveries and treatment. It's their media approach that makes them, at best, unkind and makes Crabby Old Lady queasy to think some viewers might believe what is being implied.

On the other hand, all this could be that Crabby has enough cancer in her own life right now to be able to tolerate what seems to her to be an excess of media references, some of which make cancer seem like a day in the park. It is not.