Serious Faults in the Romanticization of Cancer in Media

“Let’s not talk about it.”

That is where the conversation always ends—with my exasperated sigh of defeat. When it comes to "The Fault In Our Stars," the latest young adult literary phenomenon, fans cannot seem to see past the star-crossed lovers and I cannot seem to get them to understand how it really feels.

As much as I do not want to talk about it, Hazel Grace, the main character and I do have something in common: we are both teenage cancer patients.

I was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia in December of 2011, just a few days after my 17th birthday. Being a junior in high school, chemotherapy was the last item on my list of things to do. While girls were picking out prom dresses and my friends were visiting colleges, I was deciding whether or not I wanted to wear a wig and toughing my way through nausea.   

I understand that "The Fault In Our Stars" is a work of fiction and appreciate author John Green's story telling abilities since he never underestimates the intelligence of his teenage audience, helping them to see that ailing teenagers are more than just their illnesses.

Reading through, I was startled by how much I identified with Hazel not only as a fellow cancer patient, but also as a young adult. I, like Hazel, hated the idea of cancer support groups and refused to associate with other patients. 

My main concern, however, arises not in the thoughts or portrayal of teenage cancer patients, but in the concept behind romanticizing a real life illness and the culture emerging from the fandom.

I was horrified to stumble across ads for ABC Family’s "Chasing Life," where the main character, hardly appearing as though she has a common cold nonetheless cancer, is depicted as glowing and beautiful. Fox’s upcoming "Red Band Society," highlighting a group of teenagers living in a hospital for various reasons, is also jumping on the bandwagon with what seems to be a common theme: “sick teens are real teens too!”

What these programs fail to capture, however, is how lonely being an anomaly can become. In my experience, no matter how hard people try; facing a life threatening illness can only be understood through experience.

According to Cancer Research UK’s website, teenage cancer is “relatively rare” and accounts “for less than one percent of all new cancer cases." However, Hazel finds friends (and even a hunky boyfriend) in her community, who understand and have been through the same things she has—real life teenage cancer patients? Not so much. We are more often alone in our experiences, facing battles with family, doctors and nurses at our side, not peers who are going through the same thing.

I am also disappointed to see these characters depicted as beautiful and tragic, even sexy at times.

It is fair to say that most teenagers struggle with their self-image, but losing all your hair as a 17-year-old girl is like kicking your self-esteem while it is down. It is bad enough that I feel pressured by the media to be skinny and cake make-up on my face, but now I have to be beautiful even while I am sick? Talk about an unattainable image.

These unattainable images, however, are not alone. Many illnesses and disabilities are portrayed by the media in the same light—untrue to actuality, glorifying the daily lives of people who have to face differences every day. How are these TV shows and movies making the real people feel? Are we being insensitive to the people these characters represent?

I worry that the media is creating a society where pediatric illnesses themselves are being over-glorified and romanticized, and creators are making profits off real-life horror stories turned into melodramatic vignettes of doctor’s offices and chemotherapy, rather than bringing awareness to the reality these life-threatening illnesses teens like me face every day. These illnesses should not be a trending source of entertainment. 

As a teenage cancer patient, I am done with saying, “let’s not talk about it.”

No. Let’s talk about it. The real “it.”