Column: Mad Man

Column: Mad Man

Really, Matthew Weiner; on the penultimate episode of “Mad Men,” Betty Draper/Francis had to be diagnosed with lung cancer with her life expectancy said to be “nine months,” with nothing more than “palliative care” available? Weren’t there any other suitable diseases appropriate from which to choose? I realize it was the 70s, but…?  Was her diagnosis for dramatic effect because lung cancer has been and is such a scourge and its mere mention will elicit the desired viewer reaction? Or were you trying to draw attention to a terrible disease, the research for which is woefully underfunded while it continues to kill more people than the next four cancer diagnoses combined, including breast cancer?

As a lung cancer survivor, I get tired of lung cancer being the go-to disease when entertainment writers want to gasp their audience into emotional submission. When in doubt…actually, you’re never in doubt if a character is diagnosed with lung cancer. That diagnosis will definitely shake up your audience. Everyone knows that a diagnosis of lung cancer is not for the faint of heart (and weak of mind) and that its indication, confirmation and association will strike the kind of fear and loathing Hunter S. Thompson never really addressed.

It’s a fine line between hope and prayer, and living and enduring for those of us afflicted with this very-often terminal disease. Ergo, we don’t need any negative publicity, especially when the context is one that heightens the severity of the diagnosis and increases the anxiety and inevitability of its presumptive outcome. Certainly, increasing awareness helps, but I’d rather it not always be in a negative light to make people feel bad – or is it badly, or both? It’s bad enough already; it doesn’t need to be made worse, just for ratings.

Granted, in the time frame of these last episodes (the late 60s, Richard Nixon has just been elected), when Betty was diagnosed, palliative care apparently was all that was available for late-stage lung cancer (did they even have stages then?), so her prognosis was pretty grim. And I realize her diagnosis was one of many story lines that had to be wrapped up – or not, in the final episodes, and wasn’t necessarily a main focus. But that’s not the point I’m addressing. Hearing the words “lung cancer” in yet another tear-jerking semi send-off scene with Henry Francis crying into Sally’s lap in her dorm room after telling her about her mother’s condition, and later showing Sally – the former brat, home unexpectedly from boarding school, dutifully hand-washing the dishes in the kitchen sink, while her mother sits wistfully at the kitchen table, was almost too much: showing a family uncharacteristically coping – and not coping, because of this death-sentence diagnosis/prognosis.

It’s almost as if lung cancer is a prop; to be used whenever news needs to be shockingly, horribly bad. Well, a diagnosis of lung cancer isn’t so bad, not so bad as it used to be, anyway. Sure, “lung cancer” are not exactly words you want said in your direction, but six-plus years later, I’m living proof that indeed it’s not as bad as Mad Men dramatized. Cancer is hardly a chronic-type disease yet, but its patients are not without many treatment options. Moreover, research and clinical studies across the world show great promise and continue to evolve. I only wish the writers who continue to invoke lung cancer in their scripts might evolve a little bit too.