Smashing Sterotypes: the damaging way the media portrays people with cancer

Last week I was on the Victoria Derbyshire show discussing how the media portrays young women with illness. The discussion was following the publication of a controversial article by Cosmo. A woman’s journey through numerous unrelenting health issues including cancer was documented, and how she had been gaining control and learning to love her body again by losing weight. The article was so destructively entitled: ‘ Woman loses 44 pounds without ANY exercise’.

This isn’t the first time I have contemplated how cancer is portrayed in the media. This is one of the thoughts that filled my mind the first few days after being diagnosed. The afternoon I returned from hospital, I lay in bed thinking about how I didn’t feel like I was supposed to. What an odd reflection, that there was a way to feel after being told you had a tumour. In reality, there is no right or wrong way to deal with the trauma of a cancer diagnosis, yet I can’t deny that I was aware of a way I was *supposed* to feel. As my direct experience of this situation was minimal, I can only assume that these notions were from the portrayal of cancer in the media, from adverts, films and TV.

The media told me that my life was supposed to collapse at the mention of a word, that I was supposed to break down like I had been struck by lightening, that my world was supposed to end, but it didn’t. In fact I felt no different than I had a few hours before. I was a upset and shocked, but no earthquake had shattered my life, and all in all I was the same person as I had been in the waiting room before my appointment. Maybe it was denial, or more likely, I was just myself in the same way I always have been and still am today. I remember the guilt I felt that my life didn’t collapse in a sentence like it was supposed to. How barmy?!

For one, I wasn’t supposed to have cancer, I was too young. I can’t blame the media too much for this one, us young people aren’t particularly under represented in the media as we are indeed rare cases. Yet cancer in children is also rare, and there are often portrayals of children with cancer in TV and film. This may all seem harmless enough but young adults are often diagnosed fairly late on, which in turn can leave them with a poor prognosis. Lack of awareness that they too (no matter how unlikely) can get cancer being one of the main culprits for late diagnosis.

When I was in bed that day contemplating how I felt all wrong, I was struck by the lack of grey raining weather. How is it I can have such terrible news and leave the building to a blue sky. That’s not right, it was supposed to be at least drizzly and grey to match my supposed broken life, the TV metaphor was all amiss.

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Joey knows

The trouble is, the media usually portrays the worst, most dramatic examples of everything. This is to keep us entertained and engrossed, but it isn’t helpful for people in real life situations, who consequently have added feelings of guilt and wrongness. Feeling pressured into certain reactions and feelings no matter how unnatural they seem at the time because that is how we have been told we should feel is oppressive. Subconsciously the media has taught us that a cancer diagnosis should leave you shattered, broken, hopeless. This isn’t helpful to anyone sitting in that doctors chair. What we need to see and reinforce is positivity, to remind people that there is hope, you are still the same person and your life can and will still be great. This is what we need on our screens!

Now, it’s not all doom and gloom and grey wintery skies. Cancer is sometimes portrayed in the media with happiness, laughter, energetic music and sunshine, but only ever at the point of remission when health is restored. That’s when we are told we are allowed to be happy again, but where is the portrayal of people managing to be happy and thrive with cancer? I want to see those guys.

Not only has the medias portrayal of cancer affected how I have felt through the last few months but it has made me highly aware of how I am seen by other people. From talking to other young adults in a similar situation to me, it seems I am not the only one who just wants to be seen as the same old person. As much as I can tell myself I don’t care what people think… no one likes to be pitied, especially me. Trying to carry on your day to day life in as normal a way as possible after being diagnosed with a tumour is hard, and people treating you differently soon becomes frustrating. I’m still the same person I have always been, and I wish to be seen and treated that way. The worry of being seen as just your illness and all your actions, beliefs, hopes and dreams being judged in relation to having cancer is an oppression felt by many. I now actively think about what I do and how I hold myself to manage this with different people, which restricts me from being honest about how I’m really feeling. Maybe if the media portrayed a more varied view of people with cancer, that showed them as just people coping with every day life (albeit with illness) this pressure would be lightened.

Even more rudimental than this, the media usually portrays a more typical story of cancer (if there is ever such a thing), which usually includes chemo and therefore hair loss. There are hundreds of types of cancer, and each of them is a different disease with different symptoms, prognoses and treatments. Apart from more advanced cases, it is usually chemotherapy which makes you look and feel poorly, and lots of people don’t have chemo. Young adults are particularly resilient, with their young bodies fighting away they can often feel and look surprisingly healthy, which I do! The amount of times I get a response from people out of shock that I have a tumour when I look so healthy gets on my pip, I am sure this is solely down to having hair. Unfortunately for me the media has given us expectations of what someone with cancer looks like, and I’m sometimes left feeling dismissed for not looking this way or put into a box to try fit the typical TV cancer story.

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Breaking the fucking box

The media always portrays cancer with a vibe of ‘bravery, courage, and inspiration’ which puts a lot of pressure on an individual. It is okay to be struggling, to be finding it hard, and to not always be brave. But the pressure felt from how cancer is portrayed in the media is real, and presents itself as pressure put on myself to appear not to be failing, as if not fitting into their brave heroine narrative equates failure.

There are probably many people out there that see their story quite accurately reflected by the media which may bring a sense of comfort and understanding to them during a difficult time. Personally, I have been left feeling like an outsider and an imposter in my own world for not fitting into the medias standard portrayal of someone with cancer. So please, lets see a more varied and accurate representation of different lives through cancer, lets show people there is no one way to look, feel or react to illness. That whoever they are and however they are coping it is OK. After all, as with everything in this world, variety is the spice of life.

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