Breast Cancer on TV: 7 Characters Who Got It Right

Kristina Braverman’s breast cancer diagnosis on the second episode of this season’s “Parenthood” may not have played out as is does in real life -- being called into the office immediately after a mammogram, silence, all overplayed by Iron & Wine’s  haunting “Naked As We Come”.  But the strained smile and tears as Kristina waved across a parking lot to husband Adam, the look of distress that pulled him toward her to see what was wrong -- that felt very real.

Television scripts and actors may not always get the real story of breast cancer right. But bringing the experiences to screen has changed the way we think, speak and view the true-life patients and survivors sitting next to us on the couch or shouting out opinions about an episode on Facebook or reminding us all through fundraising or gentle nudges or walks for the cure to get a mammogram. 

In a nod to the beginning of Breast Cancer Awareness month, we’re taking a look at the television characters who were diagnosed, treated with chemo and surgery and radiation, lost and shaved their Hollywood-long hair, died and survived and sweat and laughed for us during prime time. 

"The L Word" still via imdb.comDana Fairbanks from “The L Word” was played by Erin Daniels, and is one of few television characters who dies from the disease on-screen. Diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, Dana’s final episode were full of aching moments. After it aired, Daniels said that preparing for the passing of her character and her own time as a cast member was very emotional for her.  “It felt like I was experiencing the slow death of a best friend, and of course that was really painful because I'd become so attached to her. I knew her better than anybody else, and I still do and always will,” the actress commented.

Online rumors point to creator Ilene Chaiken as admitting she regrets how Dana’s fight ended.

What was real about Dana’s experience? Dana is fit, athletic and young, a counter to the images often written about breast cancer. While her death startled viewers, the tense and sad hospital scenes showed a side of illness otherwise glamorized in medical dramas.

Related:  Eating to Lower Your Cancer Risk

via Wikipedia

Celia Hodes of “Weeds”, played by Elizabeth Perkins, is main character marijuana dealer Nancy’s manipulative, self-involved, alcohol abusing, too-close-for-comfort neighbor.  Celia’s breast cancer is discovered in season one, and she moves on in subsequent seasons to become an informant against her friend and deal pot through her cosmetics line.

What’s real about Celia’s experience? Breast cancer doesn’t always happen to likable people. Hopefully, characters who resemble Celia a little too much have their own circle of supportive friends and family -- no matter how many hijinks they pull.

via imdb.com

Murphy Brown of “Murphy Brown”, dry-witted and determined, has to be persuaded by friend Corky Sherwood to get a mammogram. The show’s last season is centered on Murphy’s treatment, which includes a medical marijuana controversy. 

What was real about Murphy’s experience? The number of mammograms women is said to have soared 30% after the show aired.  The character’s snarky comments didn’t dissipate, and later the American Cancer Society honored Candice Bergen for her contributions to breast cancer prevention and education.

Photo by Craig Blankenhorn – © MMIX New Line Productions, Inc via imdb.com

Samantha Jones of “Sex and the City”, the outrageous self-proclaimed “try-sexual”, discusses her diagnosis as bluntly as she talks about spending hours alone with The Rabbit. Privately, she buckles under the emotional weight of lost libido, hair and physical strength. True to her character, Samantha tries to push past her dependency on boyfriend Smith and wears outlandish wigs to events. 

What was real about Samantha’s experience? Kim Cattrall’s portrayal of a fabulous, independent woman inconvenienced and afraid while she’s treated for breast cancer is at its best when she’s throwing around f-bombs at gala organizer ladies and pulling off her sweaty wig as she gets real with other survivors. Samantha showed off that cancer doesn’t have to be polite or Spandex-less.

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. via imdb.comMary Beth Lacey of “Cagney and Lacey”, is almost 41 when she is diagnosed with breast cancer in the iconic female cop show that ran throughout the 80’s. Mary Beth, played by Tyne Daly, is the mother of two teens and a toddler. She is a “thinker” cop who relies on her intuition, according to the show’s official site, and through treatment, digs deep to better appreciate her job on the force and her young daughter. 

What was real about Mary Beth’s experience? While her methodic nature makes her a great officer, she sits firmly in denial when she is diagnosed with breast cancer.  Mary Beth has to be convinced by partner Christine Lacey to stop ignoring the illness and take care of herself.

Related:  Mammogram Guidelines: Why Am I So Confused?

via imdb.com

Alex Reed Halsey Barker of “Sisters”, played by Swoosie Kurtz, turns her breast cancer experience into stand-up comedy, leading her to become a talk show host and significantly shifting her career. This early-90’s hit ensemble included Sela Ward, Ashley Judd, Paul Rudd, Nora Dunn and many other still-famous actors. 

What was real about Alex’s experience? A medical trauma can shift many unexpected aspects of a survivor’s life, including career.

via WikipediaSterling Archer, title character from the animated comedy show “Archer” on FX, is an alcoholic, hypersexual, egotistic, lacrosse-playing special agent that the creator designed to be “as dickish as possible.” Oh, and the twist this James Bond-alike? He has breast cancer that is in remission. While the illness softens otherwise cold-shouldered ex-girlfriend Lana Kane toward him, it doesn’t hold back the Burt Reynolds-admirer known as one of the world’s deadliest spies from doing his animated, a-hole-ish thing.

What’s real about Sterling’s experience? He’s a man and more than 2,000 men were diagnosed with breast cancer last year. 

via WikipediaKristina Braverman of “Parenthood”, the frantic coordinator of schedules and therapies and quality time for her three kids, is diagnosed and will spend the next few episodes contemplating treatment for breast cancer. Kristina is played by Monica Potter.

What’s real about Kristina’s diagnosis? It lands in the middle of her missing her oldest daughter Haddie after she leaves for college, negotiating a new dog for her teen son who has Asberger’s, and caring for toddler daughter Nora. 

What television characters battling breast cancer are still with you?

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