"Parenthood," the 1989 movie, was so impressive in its authenticity -- several years before I had children I still was able to feel the angst (and appreciate the hilarity) of the Steve Martin character rummaging through the trash bins behind the restaurant where he had just eaten dinner with his family -- in order to find his son's expensive retainer.
I vividly remember the scene where the same character moves past his anxieties and, in his mind, takes the roller coaster ride that is life, grasping tightly as he experiences the ups and downs on the track. I have often compared my breast cancer diagnosis to a roller coaster ride: the adrenaline -producing highs and lows of taking tests, waiting for biopsy results, absorbing new developments, pushing through the fear, and weighing the pros and cons of life-changing decisions.
It really came as no surprise that the NBC television series, "Parenthood," based on the movie, so ably takes on the challenge of a storyline where "Kristina" is diagnosed with breast cancer. Kristina and I have a number of things in common. We are both in our forties, a mother of two girls and a boy (mine were 6, 10, and 13 when I was diagnosed four years ago -- hers are 1, about 12, and 18).
We both started our journeys with a mammogram, hers in an episode aptly named "Left Field." There are so many moments that are right on in her storyline but three themes from episodes 2-5 really stand out for me. *The all-consuming nature of dealing with a diagnosis.
Your mind's focus becomes singular and disconnected, distracted and unable to address other issues in life that are dwarfed in comparison. The fear, the doctor's appointments, the need to gather information, and the worry about the family take over.
The lens through which you view life becomes distorted. Adam, Christina's husband, overreacts to a messy waiting room at his recording studio office, saying that it looks like "coyotes scavenging through a doctor's office." He is impatient when his brother (and business partner) Crosby demands a raise; first he walks out of a conversation and later gives in without a fight.
You can see he just doesn't want to deal with it. Cancer, cancer, cancer. Standing firm in the forefront. The actors are so talented that you see it on their faces in many scenes: when they are alone, when the couple is together, and when they are among family; their eyes reveal that they are overcome. *The struggles of parenting when you are faced with illness. Kristina initially turns down an earlier date (three weeks earlier) for her lumpectomy because she is scheduled to be Class Mom that day. When everybody is talking at once in the surgeon's office, you hear her saying that she wants all her "ducks in a row" before surgery. Later, she cries because she is "sorry for doing this to the family."
The doctor urges her to focus on getting healthy and to quit putting her family first and herself last. She decides in the end to move up the date of the surgery and studies her crowded calendar to make room for it. There never is a good time for a mom to get sick.
We feel guilty for causing our children any anxiety, often any inconvenience, and wish that their lives will not be affected by any turmoil, especially one that derives from us, including a diagnosis over which we have no control. And the world doesn't stop when you get sick-- carpools must be driven, dinners made -- Kristina's son who has Asperger's is running for Student Council and her daughter recently started college and is living far from home.
There are so many ways the surreal cancer world and the normal day-to-day world of a mom collide. Like the time I rushed straight from a doctor's appointment to my six-year-old's gymnastic exhibition--along with my brown shopping bag containing films, information, and my breast cancer notebook-- too valuable to leave in the car. I tied it closed and tried to put my attention on the show.
It is excruciating to divulge your diagnosis to your kids, and this was poignantly portrayed in episode 5.
Kristina and Adam tell their college student, Haddie, the news via Skype and Max, their almost teen son with Asperger's, in person. Haddie is pure emotion; while Adam and Kristina urge her to concentrate on her studies. she struggles to make sense of it, calling her dad later to get more information. His face is tight, he can barely talk; "yup," he answers (afraid to say more words lest the dam break) and you see how he fights to sound calm and positive.
Later, feeling the need to be with her family, Haddie flies home. It reminded me of when my husband and I told my ten year old -- her initial response was pure emotion, that she felt "weird." Afterwards, when I climbed into bed with her, we tried to make sense of that. Max is detached emotionally; he indicates he has heard the news and then without missing a beat asks if he can watch television, causing Kristina to appear hurt and confused, and she asks Adam if Max understood. Later, while watching a cousin's Little League game, Max matter-of-factly asks Kristina if she'll need chemotherapy and tells her that it kills healthy cells as well as cancerous ones. He had gone on the Internet.
I learned the importance of providing age-appropriate information in this technological age where kids can access many unreliable sources. I had a well-written teen guide for breast cancer which I offered to my son-- he didn't want it, but I urged him to use the guide as an information and website resource if he wanted one. He never really delved into it, and when the cancer was revealed to be stage 1, his intellectual assessment of the situation caused him to no longer be worried. *The pressure to be "positive." This theme runs throughout the first few episodes--coming from Adam--until Kristina cries and tells Adam to quit it, that she feels afraid and she wants to be allowed to say it and feel it.
Although it might make others feel less scared themselves if a person is strong and positive, it denies the person the right to acknowledge the normal feelings that accompany a cancer diagnosis -- it could make them feel guilty and responsible for a bad outcome if they were not positive enough.
I have learned that there's a difference between downright negativity -- "I will surely die "-- and a cautious optimism -- "I don't know what's going to happen, I could die, this is horrifying but I'm going to do whatever I can to get well." I find it interesting and realistic that, although Kristina demands her right to acknowledge her fear, she constantly is reassuring the few who know of the diagnosis, telling them that she will make it, everything will be alright, many women have breast cancer and survive. The truth is Kristina doesn't know much at this point.
And that's what's terrifying. She knows that she has a 1.6 cm tumor (I'm not sure how she know it's malignant because she hasn't had a biopsy) that is close to a muscle wall. That's about it. The sizes of tumors cannot be determined with accuracy until they have been taken out and measured. My MRI showed a 2 cm tumor that I knew was malignant, but after surgery it was found to contain only a .5 cm malignant mass--the rest were irregular cells and precancerous cells.
Sometimes tumors thought to be small are found to be larger after surgery. And the status of her lymph nodes (whether there is the possibility that the cancer has traveled outside of the breast) will only be known after the sentinel node biopsy that will be performed during her lumpectomy. The viewers are experiencing Kristina's journey along with her, feeling the fear of uncertainty and going through the process with her in a very realistic way.
As a breast cancer survivor, I appreciate the show's dedication to this honest portrayal. The journey continues on Tuesday at 10 on NBC when Kristina's undergoes a lumpectomy .