It’s Sunday. You’ve resigned yourself to the fact that you will be spending the day on your couch catching up on a week’s worth of saved TV shows in your DVR. You clear out all the Housewives and other reality programs, and now it’s time for a dose of good ole fiction. Scripted shows that you have loved for years. Except this episode seems a little… different. The female lead or supporting female lead is visiting a doctor she doesn’t normally see or finds herself in a situation in which she is forced to examine her own body.
Grab the tissues, friends. You’re about to enter the breast cancer arc.
This arc can last from one episode in which there is a breast cancer scare to a full season in which you watch in agony as your favorite character bravely shaves her head, gets sick while trying to give that crucial presentation at work and generally attempts to hold her life together as her breast cancer diagnosis works its way through the season.
Having been through the experience of having breast cancer myself, I can spot an accurate portrayal of the condition when I see it. And for every ridiculous, unrealistic breast cancer TV moment (looking at you, ice pop and chemotherapy scene Sex and the City), there are a few that get it right. (Warning: Some minor spoilers ahead, but all for shows that have been out for a while.)
Beverly Hills, 90210
If you were a teenager growing up in the ’90s, Beverly Hills, 90210 was it. You were either Team Kelly or Brenda or Team Brandon or Dylan, and you had to pick a side. The scene was set: The girls, studying for their SATs, take a break to follow a quiz in a magazine for a breast self-exam.
Brenda, upon feeling something in her breast, misses her SATs to have a biopsy. It turns out to be just a scare and all is well, but for teens watching that show, it was a good foray into the world of our bodies and what we should do if ever in that situation. Of course, it never hurts to have a boyfriend like Dylan waiting to wheel you out of the hospital.
Before we regularly wept at This Is Us, we had Parenthood, the story of a family in California and all of its trials and tribulations. And then Season 4 happened. Kristina Braverman, mom, wife, all around badass, receives a breast cancer diagnosis, and we, the viewers, were along for the ride, and it was rough.
This arc really depicted what it is like for a mother and wife to have to go through this disease while trying to keep her family together. Let’s not forget her video to her children in Season 4, Episode 11. All. The. Tears.
Sex and the City
Did we all cry when Samantha ripped her wig off, mid-speech, waved it in the air and the rest of the audience followed suit? Sure. While there were many problematic instances in Samantha’s breast cancer arc (see aforementioned ice pop and chemotherapy session), there was one thread in this storyline that rang very true: friendship.
While the setting of the scene was unbelievable, the idea of friends coming together and providing an amazing support system for someone with a breast cancer diagnosis was spot-on. Anyone who has just been handed a diagnosis like breast cancer would be lucky to have such a loyal group that will rally around them no matter what.
The creator of Playing House, Jessica St. Clair was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and wrote her experience into the storyline of the third season. The premise of the show has always been the relationship between St. Clair’s “Emma” and Lennon Parham’s “Maggie,” and Emma’s diagnosis does not veer from this dynamic.
Maggie is Emma’s rock, going so far as to create a cancer binder for her best friend. It’s evident that St. Clair used her real-life experience in the script, injecting humor into what is an intense and upsetting topic. Laurie Metcalf plays her surgeon and delivers one of the most accurate statements ever muttered in a breast cancer arc, “No googling. I’m the google.”
Jane the Virgin
Telenovelas are typically fraught with drama. The brother of someone’s husband turns out to be the long-lost sister of the main character, and inevitably, someone winds up in a coma or lying face down in a pool. In the last few episodes of the most recent season of Jane the Virgin, Jane’s mother, Xiomara is diagnosed with breast cancer.
The depiction of Xo postmastectomy is one of the most realistic portrayals that has been on primetime television in a while, if ever. The drains, the pain, the exhaustion; it’s all there.
When Xo starts chemotherapy, we see another first on TV; she uses cold-cap therapy as a means of hair conservation. While this therapy was introduced years back, to my knowledge, this is the first time we see a character on television using the caps and experiencing and all the side effects that come with it — something I have experienced firsthand. From the freezing-cold body, to the support team that is needed to assist with changing the caps, it’s all very realistic and done with just the right mix of the drama, as you’ve come to expect in a telenovela, and all the emotion that comes with a breast cancer diagnosis.
Is watching your favorite TV character go through a trauma like breast cancer upsetting? Absolutely. But when done right, when the writers do their research, it can be a moving hour of programming that just might make you think twice about cancer.