August 10, 2023

John Hughes, Molly Ringwald, and My Cancer


I wanted Molly Ringwald’s pout and strawberry hair in eight grade. But I wanted even more the epiphany moments she lived out as John Hughes’ characters. Whether a wallflower or a princess, by the end of every movie we got to see who Samantha, Claire and Andie were, not who everyone else thought they should be.

Around the time I was in high school, watching Some Kinda Wonderful on VHS while making out with my best guy friend, cancer cells were growing in my neck. They weren’t detectable or diagnosed until I was 27. I’m now 36 and still living with cancer.

Over the past five years, I’ve been researching, writing, and had published my book on Gen X and Gen Y cancer. While hammering out my manuscript, I hung above my desk a quote that Anthony Michael Hall wrote in a letter to Mr. Vernon in the closing scene of the Breakfast Club. “You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.”

That’s how I feel every time I see cancer patients in a movie, on the news, or plastered on a poster. Victorious cancer jocks, mountain climbers, and movie stars help raise money and awareness. But these survivorship images also create a stereotype of young adult cancer patients. We are seen as vocal, outspoken, sassy, sexy, insightful, spiritual, grateful, and empowered.

As a patient, I wanted to be freed of these limiting descriptors and perceptions. I wanted to lock up myself and a few other cancer patients in a metaphoric library for Saturday detention and get to the bottom of it all. As I wrote in my book, “I wanted to reveal who we are, not in simple definitions but in the complexities of our real daily lives: what we think about while lying in bed at night; what we wish we could tell our lovers but are too afraid to; the ways in which we feel vulnerable, tender, and utterly uncertain what to do with ourselves; the times when cancer is not a fight but just a hard circumstance with which to live.”

I never got to be Molly in eight grade. But I kinda get to be her now in moments that are akin to the cheesiness of Samantha kissing Jake or Clair kissing Judd Nelson. This is how I feel every time I sit down and talk to a cancer patient who is fat, a junkie, suicidal, addicted to exercise, scared to go back to work, hasn’t had sex in five years, or is confused about their faith in God. These images are also not all of who we are, but I consider it a glory moment when the underdog sides of our cancer selves get the spotlight for a few minutes, or a few phone conversations, or a few chapter of a book. Cue the Thompson Twins. Thanks for the inspiration John.

Have you ever felt like there is a stereotype for what a cancer survivor should look or sound like? An expectation of what strength or fighting should look like? Were you ever obsessed with John Hughes movies?  Which was your favorite?

For more moments from the metaphoric cancer detention library, check out my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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  1. Sara B Says:
    August 10th, 2009 at 8:17 AM

    My favorite Hughes movie was 16 candles. He created differentiated characters who were very real. Unlike the unblemished teens of today’s film world, he provided characters one could identify with. That is the great thing about your book Kairol, the people you interview are so diverse and unlike those cancer sterotypes that you mention, that I found I could identify with some of their experiences.

  2. Adena Says:
    August 10th, 2009 at 9:09 AM

    Yes. I am tired of all the comments “you look so good!” (for someone with cancer). What is someone with cancer supposed to look like? Or, from another cancer survivor: “but didn’t you meet amazing people along the way?” (as if that made it a good thing, having cancer). There are a lot of assumptions about how you should look, should feel. A lot of stereotypes. I am not a young adult, but I am the mom of a 10-year-old and the bottom line is: I live my life. Cancer is just part of it.

  3. anonymous Says:
    August 10th, 2009 at 11:54 AM

    I once showed a crush a photo of me all dressed up to paint the town and he said, “You look like the drummer best friend who nobody falls in love with until the end of the movie.” I think at the time I was devastated, but in retrospect I think, isn’t that why we watch movies or read novels or go to plays in the first place-to see an encapsulated little story arc that plays out some of the struggles and questions of our daily lives? And yeah, to show us it’s complicated but that we have power over the plot as it develops.

  4. brigita Says:
    August 10th, 2009 at 2:13 PM

    I am lucky that I didn’t (and haven’t) gotten a lot of empty platitudes thrown at me during or after treatment, but I did feel like people expected me to be all better the second I was disconnected from my last chemo needle. Instead of people feeling sorry for me, they wanted me to get over it already.

    While I appreciate that now (sort of…), at the time I feel like I was being rushed into a way of thinking and feeling of which I simply wasn’t capable. I don’t want to be thought of as Brigita the Cancer Survivor my whole life (I’m actually very uncomfortable with the survivor label in general, although I will self-identify as a Chemo Survivor), it is a huge part of who I am and what direction I am heading in from here on out.

    Where, I’m not exactly sure…hopefully time-lots and LOTS of time-will tell.

  5. Cathy Bueti Says:
    August 10th, 2009 at 2:29 PM

    As Adena said….I too was tired of the “You look so good” statements I heard from people. And since it had only been 7 years since I was widowed I also heard the “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle” stuff. I felt like nobody “got” me or had a clue what I was going through. I may have looked ok on the outside but was being torn apart on the inside and just covered it up well. I didn’t know what a cancer patient was supposed to look or act like but I remember feeling as though there was an expectation I had to live up to. When I looked the part at work….going to work with a bandanna on rather than my wig all of my coworkers “wigged” out. They couldn’t handle it. That made me feel as though I had to hide what I was going through for their comfort. I think I became a reality check for everyone around me…if it could happen to me than why not them.

    I too loved the John Hughes movies… favorite was Sixteen Candles. One of the things I liked about it was how relatable Samantha was….She was an average girl going through the teenage angst as we all were but she wasn’t a super size 0 perfect girl. She was real to me. Watching that movie made me feel less alone during those awkward difficult teenage years.

    I used to hate when my elders said this to me but “they just don’t make movies like that anymore” :)

  6. anonymous Says:
    August 10th, 2009 at 4:25 PM

    Ah, to be able to do the Molly Ringwald lipstick trick…

  7. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    August 10th, 2009 at 4:39 PM

    In my travels and interviews, the most common cancer experience I heard was that life after chemo was the hardest. I think this is compounded by what Brigita wrote about - everybody’s expectation that you are going to bounce back immediately. It’s just not what happens. And yep, ditto with not being able to swallow the word ‘survivor’.

    On another note, I have a book signing in Chicago on Wednesday night and I feel sort of challenged by the commenter above me. Wouldn’t it be great to do the Molly Ringwald lipstick trick at the reading? Push-up bras didn’t exist back then. I just might be more successful at it now.

  8. anonymous Says:
    August 11th, 2009 at 10:22 AM

    i love that you used a quote from the breakfast club as inspiration while you were writing everything changes! thank you for writing such a thoughtful commentary on the limiting stereotypes that people with cancer often have to contend with. very much so looking forward to your book signing tomorrow at women and children first.

  9. Lauren Says:
    August 12th, 2009 at 7:30 PM

    I’m also tired of the “you look so good!” I’ve even gotten doubtful looks and “You don’t LOOK like you have cancer”… I feel like people expect me to be all frail and bald (well… I am bald…) and pathetic. A lot of times you DO see women who look like that walking around, but not usually. I’ve chosen not to wear a wig (I have one, but I feel more self conscious with it on), but I do wear a full face of makeup, nice clothes, and big earrings (to make up for the lack of hair!) People I haven’t seen in awhile always seem so shocked that I basically look like myself, not a “cancer patient”


  10. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    August 12th, 2009 at 10:21 PM

    Lauren, what you wrote reminded me of a conversation I had with a cancer patient in my book. He said he hated it when everyone said, “God, you look great” even though you feel like shit and you just want to smack them! I read this excerpt at a book signing tonight and it was one of those moments when I could see everyone in the room shaking their head in agreement. Also, LOVE the title of your blog. Kairol.

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