Since being diagnosed with cancer in April, I’ve become oddly obsessed with pop-culture portrayals of the disease. My mother stared at me with horror when a few days after my first oncology appointment I suggested we watch The Fault in Our Stars. (I’d read the book and wanted to see whether Shailene Woodley did a good job!). Certainly there are moments in the movies and TV shows I’ve filled my life with that strike a chord. I related all too well to a cancer-stricken Kristina Braverman when she curled up on the bathroom floor on Parenthood. And when I was in pain in the hospital, my mom pulled a full Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment to make sure I got my meds, damn it. I can even see a bit of Walter White in myself (season-one Walter White, don’t worry). But even with those bits and pieces of familiarity, none of these things attempted to tell my story, the story of a twentysomething aspiring journalist with a blood cancer who’s trying to make it in a big city while balancing friends, family, and career. I should have known to look to ABC Family, a bastion of young-adult melodrama, for such a show.
Chasing Life follows 24-year-old April (Italia Ricci), a low-level reporter at the fictional Boston Post who gets a big break at work just as she learns that she has leukemia. Holy cow, I thought to myself when I saw the first season just waiting to be binged on Netflix. Sure, there are a few fundamental differences—I live in Chicago, I have Hodgkin’s lymphoma, April is the month I was diagnosed, not my name—but this could be my pop-culture touchstone. “What’s it been like?” acquaintances often ask me with wide eyes. Instead of shrugging my shoulders, maybe I could just say, “Watch Chasing Life—you’ll get the gist.” Unfortunately, after watching all 21 episodes, it seems a shrug is still my best bet.
The pilot episode opens with the young reporter being encouraged by her editor to do whatever it takes to get an interview with a local athlete who was recently released from rehab. A few strategies the head honcho throws out are lying, disguising herself, finding out where the athlete’s son goes to school—you know, the same totally ethical tactics that any editor would suggest to one of his reporters. April takes this and runs with it, sneaking into a charity blood drive the athlete is hosting only to pass out once her blood is drawn. The next day the doctor (also her estranged uncle!) confronts her in a dark alley to let her know that he ran some tests on her blood and she has cancer.
This is the first 15 minutes of the show. The first 15 minutes of my show would look a little more like this:
Open on a young reporter reaching out to publicists and artists to obtain interviews in the regular fashion (no shenanigans necessary) as her editor encourages everyone in the office to uphold the integrity of journalism. On the way home the reporter notices a lump on her neck. She asks her roommate if it looks or feels weird while they sit down to watch Dancing With the Stars, and after much examination they both decide that it’s probably nothing.
Sure, my version isn’t quite as exciting, maybe it wouldn’t suck in as many people right away. But I would make up for it with a really great song playing over the montage of my diagnosis, maybe with a silent cameo by Jon Hamm as my doctor. Because the truth is, journalists these days spend a lot of time just sitting in front of a computer, and a cancer diagnosis doesn’t happen overnight.
It took five months of blood tests and body scans and invasive procedures to determine that the weird lump in my neck was not just a swollen gland or sarcoidosis or lupus but, in fact, a tumor. I’m not sure how April lucked out enough that she just needed a blood test—which she submitted to inadvertently—but I envied her in that moment.
On top of my immediate distaste for this show’s portrayal of my career and my diagnosis, the writing and acting are terrible, and it reaches laughable levels of melodrama involving an overdramatic boyfriend, a bicurious sister, and a dead father’s secrets. So why did I sit through more than 15 hours of this drivel? For one, I suddenly have a lot of free time on my hands. But mostly I was morbidly curious what they would end up getting wrong next.
Here are just a few of the egregious things that had me scoffing in disbelief:
—Let’s just get the movie/TV magic issues out of the way. After spending five days in the hospital on chemotherapy, April looks no worse for the wear (besides her perfectly round, now hairless and shiny head). My mother has proof in a terrifying scrapbook somewhere of what five days in the hospital looks like.
—While in the hospital April bleaches her hair, cuts it, dyes it, cuts it again—all perfectly coifed looks—to “have fun” with her hair before it falls out. In my experience, once it starts falling, it’s gone. Whatever hairs may hold on to your scalp certainly aren’t strong enough to go through those rigors and certainly won’t look full or luscious.
—After some hard work and hustle, before the cancer starts really affecting her, April gets her first story published. Naturally, the entire newspaper staff shuts down the office for the night to throw a surprise party with a cake CUSTOMIZED WITH HER STORY. My first byline at the Reader got little more than a congratulatory tweet.
—April’s doctor fails to tell her that the cancer treatments could affect her fertility, but DOES tell April’s mother, who makes the doctor promise NOT to tell April, so he doesn’t. You don’t have to be diagnosed with cancer to know that this is bananas.
Overall, the show becomes another crazy drama with little regard to the character’s cancer or the real world at all while it weaves its tangled web. The second season started at the beginning of July, and I haven’t found it in myself to watch any more. Instead I’ll keep searching for a real portrayal of something I am now an expert in, a show depicting that life can be funny and emotional and exciting and dramatic without deviating from true experiences or adding telenovella plot twists (suggestions of existing programs welcome). Sure, it may seem like a silly request, but during an inherently alienating time in a person’s life while things like Dog With a Blog keep getting airtime, it’s really the least that television can do.