Last Sunday’s NYT profiled Kris Carr, whose film (“Crazy, Sexy, Cancer”), best-selling book series, and blog celebrate the author’s transformation from a 31-year old woman diagnosed with stage 4 cancer to self-proclaimed “wellness warrior” and celebrity. Carr’s website promises not just survival but “explosive energy, joy & vitality” and asks a pertinent question: “Why, when we are challenged to survive, do we give ourselves permission to truly live?”
Similarly, one of the most compelling televisions shows I have watched lately is Laura Linney's excellent series, The Big C, on Showtime (we do not have cable and have been watching old episodes on Netflix, so please do not tell me if she dies in Season 2!). I am not a cancer survivor myself, and neither are most of the viewers of the show. So why would anyone watch a show about a middle-aged woman who receives a diagnosis of advanced, inoperable cancer? Well, because the show is funny, moving, and wonderfully done.
Certainly, Carr’s personal journey is compelling and heroic. And if she’s able to provide comfort and inspiration to women facing severe illness, hats off to her. But I wonder about the mass appeal of these narratives to women who are not ill.
I think there’s a deeper meaning to the popularity of both The Big C and Carr’s blog/books/movie: many of us would probably like to shrug off our often crushing responsibilities and live in the moment. We would like to be gloriously, beautifully alive (both Carr and Linney are radiant blondes). Linney’s character leads a charmed life, post-diagnosis: she is effortlessly beautiful, lives in a gorgeous sun-drenched house, and although she's shown teaching, her job is represented as magically without consequences or stress. But most important, since she's dying, she be selfish and irresponsible: she empties her 401K to buy a red sports car; puts in a swimming pool; kicks out her hapless husband; flirts with her handsome oncologist; has an affair with a charming black artist; liberates herself from conventional niceties with what my aunt called “cancer rudeness.” The whole first season shows a seemingly healthy woman doing whatever she wants.
As Barbara Ehrenreich points out (with her usual brilliance), we have a cultural fascination with the power of positive thinking. However, I’m struck by the poignancy of our collective desires to imagine ourselves as cancer patients, at once the center of the universe and magically alive.