Two things. An interesting story about the staging of Melanoma and my thoughts on how one deals with telling others about their having cancer.
Melanoma. I am from LaGrange, Georgia because after my mother’s divorce we returned there to live with my grandmother. My grandmother’s husband, Robert Cooper Davis, was a pharmacist, played football at Georgia, and was a Navy veteran of World War One. As a pharmacist he knew all the doctors in town and one of which was a Dr. Clark. The hospital, West Georgia Medical Center, was on Vernon road. Just before the hospital were a constellation of homes, to the left going out from town and toward the hospital, where Dr. Clark’s family and my mother’s family lived. They were next door neighbors and the father’s were friends, the wifes were friends, and the children were friends. My mother described those days on Vernon Rd. as some of the happiest times in her family’s life. The year would have been around the time just prior to the Great Depression.
Dr. Clark had two children, Wallace and Georgia. My mother played wiith both and loved both of them her entire life and considered Georgia her best friend. She loved Wallace because he was bad and fun. He had flaming red hair, mischievous, but brilliant. Throughout Wallace’s school career it became a common occurrence for the principal to call Dr. Clark and have him come get Wallace for some sort of prank or infraction of some sort. On one occasion, Wallace and members of the LaGrange High Grangers marching band were in the library waiting to perform at some school event. As is true for most librarians, this particular on struck fear through the hearts of the students by virtue of her strictness to quite. Out of nowhere, Wallace, a drummer for the band, began to hit and strike his drums as loud as he could dramatically interrupting the silence. Furious and disturbed by Wallace’s outbreak the librarian runs to the miscreant and grabs the sticks from his hand and yells,” Wallace Clark. What in God’s name are you doing?”
Wallace replied calmly, ” Beating the hell out of these drums!” As had happened so many times before the teacher takes one of Wallace’s ears and takes him to the principal and the resultant call to Dr. Clark. Dr. Clark would calmly tell his office staff, ” I’ll be back in a few minutes. I’ve got to get Wallace at the school.” My mother loved telling me this story and she always made a point of making sure that I knew that Dr. Clark always retrieved Wallace ” calmly.”
So…Wallace is sent to the Citadel in South Carolina (that’s where you sent young men that needed to “straighten up.” Being brilliant he finishes in three years and then goes to Medical School and finishes early and then becomes a Pathologist. He in time becomes a Professor and then gets an appointment at Temple University in Philadelphia.
He begins to do research on Melanoma and developes a staging system for melanoma that predicted the aggressiveness of the disease based on the depth microscopically of the cancer. He called it the Clark’s Level of Melanoma. He becomes famous, as throughtout the world, Melanoma is classified using his system. His system allowed for a standardization of this disease and in turn helped surgeons, oncologists and Melanoma patients better treat the disease.
Wallace Clark, one of my mother’s best friends and maybe the most famous person to ever live in LaGrange. I met him once, I saw the red hair. I went to his mother’s funeral in LaGrange. He read something he had written for the event and of course I remember it as being “brilliant.”
Now…why I understand the odd way the “The Big C” handles telling people the main character has cancer. I did not want to go there with people. I wanted them to know on my terms and at a time of my choosing. I cannot tell you why. I had a flood of emotions and just did not want to tell people, certainly not announcing it at church or as an announcement in a church bulletin.
Below is an excerpt from the “Decision” in which I try to explain why how each of us handle and distribute the news of a cancer is different for each person. Some more thoughts on the “Big C” tomorrow.
Misconceptions abound as well about the male that has prostate cancer. All of the half-truths that might impede the diagnosis in males are now attributed to the male that has it and has been treated. Let me explain. I was a bit different in how I handled the news that I had prostate cancer compared to most patients and probably differently from you. I did not tell many people; I had emotional difficulty telling my children and did not want it announced at church, like you hear so often during prayer concerns. I personally felt that I was dealing with the diagnosis of cancer fairly well, but that retelling it to others would be difficult for me. I have been that way all my life; my aunt Betsy once said to me, “It’s a Davis family trait, John; your grandfather would cry at the drop of a hat.” I had this fear of becoming emotional in telling my children the news, so I delayed doing anything for several weeks and finally decided I’d send an email. I used as the subject line, “dad’s got a new gig.” In my email I rambled on and only implied that I had cancer (“the biopsy showed something”), but reassured them that I would be O.K. It was a very difficult time for me; I was more concerned about how they would feel about their dad having cancer than the threat that I would not do well. As I have previously mentioned, I kept having the sensation and feeling that somehow I had let all of my family down. When they called to ask what in the world I was talking about in my cryptic email, my wife did all the explaining. For about a month I did not answer the phone; the thought of telling one of my children that I had cancer was something I just could not do. It took weeks before I could talk of it without my eyes welling up. It was embarrassing. My wife was absolutely beautiful and strong through this, explaining “my situation” to all family members that would call inquiring about me as if I were not home, although I’d be there next to her in our den. I did tell a female friend, with whom I teach youth Sunday school (I have taught youth Sunday school at my church for about 20 years) about a month or so after my diagnosis. She had had breast cancer, and I felt almost guilty that I had not told her. Once she knew, she would ask each Sunday when was I going to do something about the cancer. After about two months of this questioning each Sunday, she exasperatedly said to me in the parking lot outside the church, “John, go get your prostate cancer treated; you’ll have sex again!” I thought it was an odd remark at the time, but I suppose she thought my delay in making a decision was a “male thing.” In retrospect there may have been some truth and intuition in her observation, a “woman thing.” This remark then began a new era of issues for me surrounding the misconceptions of others in their understanding of what happens to you when you’ve been treated for prostate cancer. It is a reverse misconception, so to speak, not about the male’s understanding of prostate cancer, but others’ misconceptions about someone who has been treated. I began to wonder, are she and others thinking that I will be impotent and incontinent; is this how others will view me in the future? As hard as the decision is, this added element, particularly in a relatively young man, adds to the stress of dealing with the purely medical issues of prostate cancer. This disease and associated treatment options are unusual in that concerns regarding potency and incontinence issues are often moved to the forefront and cure is placed on the back burner. In many ways the treatment of prostate cancer is a “male mastectomy.” In a female there is the emotional trauma of having breast cancer and treatments that can disfigure the body; in the male there is no disfiguration that you can see, but treatment of the prostate affects the quality of how you void and achieve erections. There is also the constant awareness that the cancer may not have been cured and “come back.” This does somewhat eat at your maleness, and knowledge of these risks complicates the decision.
New TV series ‘The Big C’ finds humor in cancer
By Chuck Barney
Contra Costa Times
‘THE BIG C,” a provocative new offering from Showtime, could be a tough sell. It’s a comedy — yes, a comedy — starring Laura Linney as an uptight Minneapolis schoolteacher diagnosed with terminal cancer. Are you laughing yet?
Linney, making her debut as a TV series regular, insists that it’s not as morbid as it sounds. The show, she says, revels in life much more than it dwells on death.
“When this script came to me, what hit me the most was the theme of time and what you do with time,” she recalls. “What are the choices we make? How do we spend our time? It’s a privilege to grow old and that’s something I think a lot of people have forgotten in this very fast-paced world where youth is overly celebrated.”
Linney, 46, plays Cathy Jamison, who, in the series opener, learns that she has Stage 4 melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Instead of sharing the news with her husband (Oliver Platt), from whom she recently separated, Cathy begins to live in a more carefree and boisterous manner. She digs up her yard for the swimming pool she always wanted, sets fire to the couch she always hated and generally behaves in ways that astound those around her, including a feisty student played by Gabourey Sidibe.
“I love that she’s taking the opportunity to figure out who she is,” Linney says of the character. “And the diagnosis, if anything, sort of forces her on that journey. She’s about to go through a huge growthspurt.”
“The Big C,” which debuts at 10:30 p.m. Monday, joins Showtime’s gallery of dark comedies tied to flawed and twisted women — the pot-peddling mom in “Weeds,” the cheating caregiver in “Nurse Jackie,” the housewife with multiple personalities in “The United States of Tara.” But Linney’s show could be the riskiest of them all because it dares to ask viewers to pledge their allegiance to a lead character even as it threatens to kill her off, potentially breaking a lot of hearts in the process.
And while many TV series have featured cancer-oriented story lines in recent years — “Brothers & Sisters,” “Breaking Bad” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” to name a few — “The Big C” is distinctive in that it uses cancer to fuel its main narrative while attempting to find humor in it.
But Linney, who also serves as an executive producer on the show, points out that it’s not the cancer that’s funny, just the situations that cancer presents.
“I think any time your life is turned upside down and things are vulnerable, when you’re entering a new territory that is unknown, urgent and frightening, funny things tend to happen,” she says.
Still, it will take a deft touch to make it work, says executive producer Jenny Bicks (“Sex and the City”; “Men In Trees”), who successfully battled breast cancer a decade ago. She channeled the experience while writing about Samantha’s encounter with the disease on “Sex and the City.”
“It’s a tightrope,” Bicks says. “The comedy must always come from character and from these situations. And the same with the drama. I think if we get you to laugh once and cry once in an episode, then we’ve done our job. But it is a very fine line, and we police it a lot.”
Dr. Lynn E. Spitler, director of the San Francisco-based Northern California Melanoma Center, is intrigued. She hopes “The Big C” can bring more attention to a form of cancer that remains a mystery to many.
“Everyone knows about breast cancer and self-examinations, but melanoma is still relatively unknown,” she says. “So I think the idea (of the show) is terrific. Any time melanoma gets some kind of exposure in the media, we get an influx of patients. I guarantee you, this will save lives.”
What Spitler isn’t so sure about is a character who, at least initially, withholds her diagnosis from friends and relatives, and takes her life in wildly offbeat directions. “In my experience, just the opposite happens,” she says. “Patients come into the clinic with their whole family surrounding them in support. And they strive to keep their lives as normal as possible.”
But Bicks claims Linney’s character is not intended to be a poster girl for how one goes about dealing with cancer.
“She’s one woman, in one place in time, dealing with this specific kind of cancer and this is how she’s doing it,” she says. “We didn’t set out to try to deliver lessons on how to do it. But I would hope that people watching it at least will feel like you shouldn’t wait until you get cancer to make yourself happy.”
Bicks says the fate of Linney’s character has not been decided. But she plans to slow down time by having every season of the show represent a season on the calendar.
“We don’t think in terms of when, or if, we are going to kill her because it’s much more about exploring what she’s going to be doing while she’s alive,” she says. “But if it comes time that she goes, she goes. We are not going to be afraid of that.”
But the point will be moot if Showtime can’t attract enough viewers to the series. To that end, the premium cable network is betting on Linney’s acclaimed acting skills and her everywoman appeal. It’s also marketing the heck out of “The Big C” in irreverent style with ads that have Linney lounging with a beach ball on the sand inside an hourglass with a caption that reads, “Grabbing life by the balls.”
Although her first big role was as Mary Ann Singleton in PBS’ “Tales of the City” miniseries back in 1993, Linney has been best known in recent years for her work in film and theater and says she was never looking to land her own TV show. But when Showtime pitched her the script last year, it held her in thrall. Linney’s mother was a nurse who worked with terminally ill patients, and the untimely deaths in recent years of several loved ones had her contemplating mortality.
“It sort of intersected with so many things I’d been thinking about in my day to day life that I realized I had to pay attention to it,” she says. ” … I’m at the age where relatives are growing older and friends are dying, sometimes in unexpected ways. It hits me in a very different way.”