May 01, 2023

TV, Movies, and My Cancer


I went to high school with a guy named Ram Gordon who is now a cardiologist. He has a great post today on the New York Times site in which he reminisces about watching ER with his roommates as a med student 15 years ago.

His post made me remember when as a kid and my whole family sat glued to St. Elsewhere on Wednesday nights, watching Mrs. Huffnagle’s death by hospital bed. Oh, Ed Bagley Jr. before his eco-trip. Oh, hot Denzel in his youth.

But I’m now jealous (only slightly) of my friends who have had a great Thursday night escape with what seemed like one of the few quality TV shows on air. Since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve tried watching ER many times, but couldn’t stomach the palpable reality of the hospital. It was as if I could smell the rubbing alcohol wafting off the screen. Great TV to one is post-traumatic stress to another.

Last month I rented Synecdoche.  I liked Charlie Kauffman’s other twisted and addictive movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich. But when Kauffman’s wacky brilliance mingled with the plot a theater director suffering from strange symptoms that shut down his autonomic body functions, it flashed me back to my life as a 27 year-old choreographer, when docs spent a year and a half trying to figure out what was wrong with my body before I received my cancer diagnosis.  Those were the days when I’d fall asleep in the morning on my cold bathroom floor after brushing my teeth because I couldn’t make it back to my bed. I turned Synecdoche off after 45 minutes.

Are you able to watch movies and TV shows about hospitals and disease?  If so, what are your favorites and why?  Are med shows and flicks comforting in their familiarity or do they hit too close to home?   Has illness or being a cancer survivor made you squeamish or desensitized?

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  1. BC Says:
    May 1st, 2009 at 2:22 PM

    It depends on the exact content of them. I have PTSD from an anesthesia mis-hap during my ThyCa surgery, so seeing intubations, masks and obviously incapacitated patients tends to freak me out. I also struggle with anything containing neck slashing (like certain episodes of CSI). I had an unfortunate incident at the gym where someone left TLC on the tv and a thyroidectomy was being performed. I started bawling right in the middle of the gym.

    For awhile I was totally desensitized; I watched surgery shows all of the time and it didn’t bother me. I think I was numb in general during that time.

    That said, I do enjoy Scrubs. Sometimes it triggers me, but usually it is very watchable. I’m getting better with CSI, which has been a long-standing favorite of mine before cancer.

  2. Cathy Bueti Says:
    May 1st, 2009 at 5:09 PM

    I also have PTSD (self diagosed of course!) and I have a hard time watching medical shows. Actually when I started reading this post I flashed back to when my husband was killed in Sept. of ’94 which was just before ER started. He was so looking forward to watching the show from what he saw in the previews. He was going to school to be a PA. Anyway, after his death from a car accident I tried to watch the first ER episode for him and I barely made it through, I think there was some accident victims being wheeled in and….I was done! And that was before cancer. I have worked in healthcare for many years now as an OT so I have always had some level of hypochondria from it. Then when my cancer diagnosis came my PTSD got worse and needless to say, I was also jealous of my friends who could enjoy their Thursday nite addiction on NBC. No Grey’s Anatomy for me either. I have to be careful when I am channel surfing around TLC. One time I caught a glimpse of some breast surgery and my fake boob started having sympathy pains while the rest of me went into a panic attack.

  3. Ram Gordon Says:
    May 1st, 2009 at 6:04 PM


    Thanks for the kind words. I’m honored you read the post. You have an amazing blog and life mission to unite people affected by cancer. I remember you and your brother well.

    What I didn’t mention in my post was that I enjoyed watching ER early in medical school, when I didn’t have to take care of patients, and later, when ER had “jumped the shark,” and had gotten sillier and more unrealistic and more fictional. However, when I was an intern and resident, I had trouble watching the show, not only because I was stuck in the hospital for 90 hours and week and did not want to deal with medicine anymore, but because the fictional patients had become more real and I was uncomfortable with my inabiity to help them. I usually watched the show from a doctor’s perspective, of course, but I can see by the comments here why it would be have been completely unpalatable to watch it (and other medical shows) from a patient’s viewpoint.

    Thanks for opening my eyes.


  4. Luke Says:
    May 1st, 2009 at 8:40 PM

    I’ve just recently gotten where I can watch ER and House. But that’s after a year of not working in oncology or anywhere else and a tad bit of scotch therapy.

    The being a cancer patient stuff doesn’t seem to bother me. When I dream at night I usually have cancer again but it never bothers me when I wake up. It’s when I dream about being a care provider that yanks my guts a bit. When I work in health care the last thing I want to see when I make it out of the hospital is another hospital.

  5. Robin Says:
    May 1st, 2009 at 10:02 PM

    Almost every episode of Grey’s Anatomy makes me cry… its possibly the only thing that makes me cry. But I think it has a lot to do with that I started watching it almost at the exact same time that I was diagnosed with TC the second time.

    There is one episode in particular that is gut wrenching. Seth Greene is on and he has TC and they had to do a neck dissection, except they blew the whole concept of a neck dissection out of proportion. And he wasn’t supposed to move or laugh too much or it would rip the stitches and he would bleed to death, which they then proceeded to show. This was on not too long after I had my own neck dissection, which wasn’t nearly like that, though they didn’t cut any arteries, so I realize it could possibly of been. I spent the next week doing damage control with all my family members who also saw the episode and were upset by it.

    The recent episodes where one of the main characters was just diagnosed with cancer has also been hard. How she reacted, things friends did; it all brought up a lot of old memories.

  6. Ed Says:
    May 2nd, 2009 at 10:08 AM

    I must say that I really do not watch any of these pseudo-reality soap operas, but especially the medically-oriented ones. They all feel nonsensical to me, given my personal experience with hospitals and doctors. While I am sure that there are work romances going on all the time and everywhere, to take such a serious thing - dealing with cancer, with loss, with pain - and suffusing it with comedy and romantic drama is too much to take. I find that I can watch documentary spots about surgery, but have a hard time with all of the un-reality that accompanies medical shows on TV.

  7. Garnet Says:
    May 2nd, 2009 at 7:05 PM

    PSTD right here too. I love Grey’s Anatomy but I’m having trouble watching Izzy go through her cancer treatments. It’s really not that easy to make it look that easy, I don’t think. And how come whenever someone on TV gets chemo, they’re always staying in the hospital? I know some chemo regimines are harder than others and those need to be watched over more carefully. Or someone may be super duper sick and is better off getting it in the hospital. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in these TV shows (I’m referring to not only Grey’s but also Days of Our Lives - my guilty sin! - and even ER.

    After my mom died unexpectedly I tried to watch the Showtime show The Tudors for her because she was a HUUUUUGE fan of that era in history, knew all about the royalty lines and such. I made it through about 5 minutes before I started bawling my eyes out and shutting the TV off! I thought it’d be okay to watch it for her and feel her near me in spirit as I did so. Unfortunately, as I was trying to figure out who was who and what was going on, my first impulse was to call her and get a refresher on those Medival times…but there was no one left to call.

    I still haven’t tried again. Maybe someday. Maybe not. Rumors indicate that there’s far too much sexxiness going on in that show than my mother would appreciate! LOL

  8. Jill Says:
    May 3rd, 2009 at 2:36 AM

    Great Post! I too can’t watch medical shows on tv. I used to enjoy ER. Then even Desperate Housewives could cause a little discomfort. I can’t watch anything with too much violence either. And suspence is largely out. After 2 1/2 years since diagnosis I am starting to be able to watch some adult tv,(Spooks is my limit and I cover my face like a sissy at the suspenceful bits ! And I’ve started watching Scrubs with my daughter, though I don’t always give it my full attention ) but just can’t stay in the room with too much blood or violence, or references to cancer or illness. I seem super sensitive and my daughter, who’s just turned 15, watches tv I find too much to bear. And I used to be able to watch these shows!! It can make you feel like a child again in an adult world, and can make me feel weaker than others which I find irritating. And then I get angry that they’re making these programmes and movies with all this overt gruesomeness. I guess if you are living with the problem you just don’t need the fictional variety to give you the vicarious experience. And if you’re coping with the knowledge that your own demise could be soon, you don’t really want to watch the process of death and pain.

  9. Corey Says:
    June 11th, 2009 at 12:41 PM

    Yes, I was sad that, after my husband’s TC diagnosis and treatment, I can no longer enjoy Grey’s Anatomy. I had thought it was getting ridiculous before I was confronted with spending time in the hospital, but I guess I’m mad that angry that I can’t enjoy it the way I used to. I agree with Garnet that seeing Izzy go through chemo was pretty hard, even though it was unrealistic. I just fast forwarded through her treatments and watched the rest of the drama (possible when watching online.)

  10. batya Says:
    October 3rd, 2009 at 6:41 PM

    I’ve completely gone off medical dramas. I don’t want to be constantly reminded & comparing, in my own mind, about my own experiences. Also, time is more precious now, so it has to be something really good if I’m gonna sit still and stare at it for an hour or two.

  11. Meghan Says:
    July 2nd, 2011 at 7:01 PM

    When I was getting chemo, the nurses used to turn the television to ER…it seemed pretty counterintuitive.

    Once, an x-ray tech I’d had early in my illness looked me up on Facebook to tell me that someone she knew with my disease had died. It took me about an hour to figure out who the heck she was, the realization of which was swiftly followed with “Um. WTF?”

    Medical/nursing school should have required “illness etiquette” training sessions.

  12. Kairol Rosenthal
    Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    July 5th, 2011 at 2:10 AM

    Wow Meghan, that might go high on my list of most insensitive interactions I’ve ever heard of between patient and healthcare professional. Hum, you have inspired me to host a contest…

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