7 ways the TV show Parenthood accurately portrays cancer

by Lesley on September 5, 2013 · 2 comments

in cancer,tv

Parenthood - Season 4

Everyone warned me about the most recent season of Parenthood because it tackles cancer. Early in the season Christina Braverman is diagnosed with breast cancer and spends the remaining episodes battling the disease.

When the show began airing last fall several friends told us the storyline was very emotional. Since then I’ve been so curious to see if Parenthood would offer an accurate depiction of the cancer journey. Thanks to a lot of late night Hulu time this summer, I’m finally caught up!  I have to say– Parenthood’s writers and actors did a phenomenal job capturing the many procedures and emotions that come with cancer.

Here are seven ways Parenthood gives an accurate representation of the cancer journey…(and one way it does not!)

Cancer shows up when you least expect it.

Christina goes in for a routine mammogram soon after she’s had a baby. The rest of her family is out looking at new puppies to adopt while she goes to the appointment. No one is prepared for the news. When Christina walks across the pet store parking lot and tells her husband, both faces crumple.

I’ll never forgot stepping off my JetBlue flight two years ago and receiving Jonathan’s panicked voicemail message. He’d called when I was flying even though he knew I couldn’t pick up the call. I didn’t even know he had a doctor’s appointment scheduled that day. His diagnosis blindsided us. 

Choosing a doctor is a highly emotional process.

Choosing an oncologist is a huge decision. When you or a loved one is newly diagnosed, this decision feels like it could be the difference between life and death.  I could relate to the scene in Parenthood when Christina and Adam meet her oncologist for the first time. The doctor is direct and takes charge, but seems rushed and somewhat cold. Even though he recommends a fast turnaround for her surgery, Christina wants to meet with another oncologist first to weigh her options. Adam and Christina argue about this decision. To Adam, it seems black and white: choose the doctor who comes highly recommended. Christina, on the other hand, wants to feel a connection with the doctor.

When Jonathan was diagnosed our roles were opposite from Adam and Christina. Jonathan was fine with his oncologist at the first meeting; I was not so sure. There was definitely at least one big argument I remember that ended in me sobbing about which doctor he should see. Which brings me to the next point…

The caregiver will need to take charge during the early days after a diagnosis, but the patient has the ultimate say.

When it came to choosing a doctor, Jonathan got the final word. After all, he was the patient. I remember feeling like I should have equal say, especially because I’d done a lot more of the research around treatment options and doctor choices. But when it comes down to it, I was not the one battling cancer.

There’s a scene where Christina is sitting on her bed and authoritatively announces she’s picked a doctor. Adam tries to talk through the decision with her but Christina says it’s her decision, not his. Jonathan and I had almost an identical conversation!

Caregiver and patient will both have difficulty saying these words: “I have cancer” / “He has cancer”

Something that stuck out to me during Christina’s diagnosis period is both her and Adam never say the word CANCER. In fact, the Bravermans don’t tell anyone Christina is sick until the news is forced out of them by a family member. When she does tell the extended Braverman family, the C word is never actually said. It’s implied through her tears, her body language and the family’s reaction, but the viewer never hears the phrase, “I have cancer.”

Jonathan and I were both terrified to spread the news about his disease. The night he was diagnosed we told several close friends and our families. It was awful… because telling people makes everything feel real.  And yet I couldn’t imagine running into acquaintances at the grocery store and having to say, “Nice to see you! What’s new with me? Oh, well, my husband has cancer.”

We decided to write a long email to family and friends to avoid having the say the C word verbally. I’m so glad we did.

At some point, the family will hit rock bottom.

Mid-way through season four there’s a Christmas episode where Christina is hospitalized with an infection. When a chemo patient gets sick, things can quickly spiral downward because the patient often doesn’t have an immune system to fight the bad germs. In Parenthood, Christina’s life is on the line during a season that’s supposed to be special and peaceful.

While Jonathan was never hospitalized during treatment, this episode still hit close to home. Just a few days before Christmas 2011 he was very sick. We flew to Orange County so that our family could help care for us. I’ll never forget the emergency room visit just two days before Christmas, how he threw up all over the ER waiting room, and how he  didn’t eat much on Christmas day because he was so sick. It was certainly a memorable Christmas in all the wrong ways. 

The spouse/caregiver will think he/she needs to be strong for the other person. 

There’s a scene in Parenthood where one of Christina’s new friends, another breast cancer patient, tells her what to expect in the coming months. She says: “Here’s how it’s going to go with your husband…he’s going to want to solve everything. He’s going to want to take charge. He’ll tell you to stay off the internet. He’ll freak out whenever there’s a left turn, and there are a lot of left turns. He’s going to have a freakin’ heart attack at all the waiting, and there’s a lot of waiting. (But) he can’t have a heart attack…because you’re going to need him.”

Soon after Jonathan’s diagnosis I went into crisis mode and gave him a pep talk. Essentially I said something like this: “You have a few more days to mourn this diagnosis, and then I want you to decide if you’re going to fight this. And I need you to get on board with finding a doctor, and researching our options, and not moping around waiting to die.” My pep talk was hard for Jonathan to swallow because he started to feel like I didn’t understand what he was going through. And I didn’t. Christina Braverman says it best when she tells Adam,  “I know that you’re trying to make everything okay for me…and I love you so much for that. But, you have to let me be scared…I don’t want you to tell me to think positive or that everything’s going to be great. Because right now I’m not sure everything’s going to be.”

With cancer, you can’t help but always look over one shoulder. 

When Christina Braverman finishes her last chemo treatment, she runs into her friend Gwen in the infusion room. Gwen has relapsed. Seeing Gwen sick again reminds Christina that cancer can always be lurking. So when Adam gifts Christina with a surprise trip to Hawaii, to celebrate her battle being over, she rejects the gift saying “It’s too early to celebrate. The cancer could still be there. It could come back.” (Eventually Christina decides she can’t live in fear and they take the vacation.)

The reality is, when you’ve dealt with cancer of any kind you’re always afraid the next scan will be bad news. Jonathan has a scan in just a few weeks and we’re both a little terrified. Just two years ago we had a very young baby when he was diagnosed. To receive such news again, with another young baby in our house, would be heart crushing. And yet while we’d be naive to believe a relapse could never occur, we’re also not going to live in constant fear. We cannot and will not plan our life around cancer.

So, what’s the one Parenthood cancer scene we couldn’t relate to?

Let’s just say that Christina turns to some alternative forms of treatment for helping her manage chemo’s many side effects. In Jonathan’s experience, and from what all of his oncology nurses shared, very few patients need to use medical marijuana. Jonathan stuck with Zofran and found it to be perfectly effective. 🙂

If you haven’t watched the most recent season of Parenthood, I highly recommend the show. It’s on Hulu! Who else is watching? 

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Hi! I've been following your blog for a while now and wanted to say thank you for all you write about!  My husband and I have been watching Parenthood from the beginning and absolutely love it!  He had cancer twice as a child, and while I wasn't there with him during that time, I still feel the connection.  Thank you for this post!


Hi! I've been following your blog for a while now and wanted to say thank you for all you write about! My husband and I have been watching Parenthood from the beginning and absolutely love it! He had cancer twice as a child, and while I wasn't there with him during that time, I still feel the connection. Thank you for this post!