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I Am Not Your Cute Subplot: Cancer in Media

I Am Not Your Cute Subplot: Cancer in Media

by Morgan BoyerSurvivor, Hodgkin's LymphomaJune 13, 2020

When I received word that I had relapsed, one thing that I turned to is to drown myself in the world of fiction, be that anime, video games, manga, comics, or movies. I recognize that it’s an escape mechanism that harkens back to the hunter-gatherer days of fight-or-flight, but otherwise what else do I have to look forward to?

When literally everything in my life is horrible between cancer and COVID-19, why can’t I find hope in looking forward to the weekly new episodes of Lore Olympus, devouring self-indulgent fanfiction, playing Pokemon while watching anime, or laughing at the Buzzfeed: Unsolved show?

When my own stomach hates me for the poisonous chemo, Shane and Ryan’s adorable banter over ghosts, aliens and true crime gives me the ability to feel something.

My father, a survivor of kidney cancer for 18 years who died when I was seventeen back in 2012, was the same way. He loved Project Runway, Arrested Development, South Park, and Modern Family. He played Medieval II: Total War and traditional table-top strategy games.

Why am I telling you this? Well, it’s because none of these are the sappy Hallmark garbage with the innocent lamb cancer patient who gives the well-bodied protagonist sage advice about being “strong”, “believing in yourself”, “living life” or “trusting in God”.

Too often I see in soap-opera-like media that they treat cancer as a plot device for character development rather than an actual disease.

“God Friended Me”, “The Bucket List”, “My Sister’s Keeper”, “God’s Not Dead”, “October Sky”, and “I Still Believe” ‒just to name a few ‒ have characters who are innocent cinnamon rolls that are here to teach people about how precious and amazing life is in subplots that are built to tug at the heartstrings. Do they have selfish desires or primal instincts of their own? Of course not! They’re above such earthly thoughts.

Granted, cancer isn’t the only illness that has been used by artists and writers for such an effect. Back in the 19th century, tuberculosis was all the rage from “Les Miserables” to “Crime & Punishment” to “La boheme”, the latter of which inspired the hit musical “Rent”.

Nowadays we don’t worry about tuberculosis since we have vaccines and antibiotics, so like corsets tuberculosis has fallen out of fashion since it can no longer connect as well with the anxieties of the audience. So if an author wants to achieve the same effect, they need to just jump to another disease that doesn’t have a cure.

There’s only one problem with this writing trick: people with diseases aren’t hollow props.

We’re human beings who eat Ben and Jerry’s at 9 pm despite what the oncology nutritionist says about eating more fruit to boost their immune system. There are those of us who prefer to read saucy yaoi fanfics about our favorite anime characters than boring paperbacks about “small-town American values”. I’ve read yaoi fanfics in the oncology unit and I am not ashamed of that fact. I had to always keep a separate tab to switch to anytime the nurse came in to flush my port. There are those of us who groan when we have to take the trash out or fold the laundry.

Next time, give me a cancer character who is too exhausted from their chemo to do the dishes so they take their pills with a coffee mug. Give me a cancer character whose chemo fog causes them to forget to text their roommate to get toilet paper at the store and the moment they realize it they cuss. Give me a cancer character who hates taking the dog out because every time a neighbor stops to ask them how they’re doing, even though they just spoke to each other yesterday, so why would it have changed? Give me a cancer character who is annoyed at all of the people they’ve ever known on Facebook posting on their wall about how bad they feel for them.

Give me a cancer character who isn’t a sweet little lamb, but a screaming goat who is sick of this bullcrap.


All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at

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