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Playing With / The Topic of Cancer

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Basic Trope: Cancer is seen as the most serious of diseases, with many deep psychospiritual meanings as well as being a threat to life and health.

  • Straight:
    • Alice is diagnosed with breast cancer either after suspecting the disease or by surprise at a checkup. The story follows her as she undergoes surgery and chemotherapy, as she thinks through the "deeper meanings," and seeks counseling, and copes with how it makes her feel about her femininity, among other issues. The entire story is about her cancer, or at the very least, her cancer is a major subplot.
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    • Bob is worried he may have cancer, and is thinking through the implications of possibly having it, along with thinking of the futility and brevity of life, as he waits for his test results.
    • Alice is at a funeral for someone important to her who died of cancer.
  • Exaggerated:
    • Littlest Cancer Patient
    • Bob, constipated for one day for the first time at 23, checks out WebMD and Googles constipation symptoms. Within two hours, he is convinced he is dying horribly from cancer, going through all of the above mentioned in "Straight," and rushes to the emergency room demanding a colonoscopy.
    • Alice lives a life terrified of cancer or contracting it - so much that she lives in an isolated dome in a place as far away from other human habitat as possible, reads the Daily Mail's "what can give you cancer" religiously, and... as a result, lives a sad, lonely, fearful life.
  • Downplayed:
    • Alice is diagnosed with basal cell or squamous cell skin cancer at its earliest stage. The spot is removed in minutes in her doctor's office, no ongoing treatment such as chemo or radiation is needed, and while she may need to look out for similar spots for a couple of years, she is otherwise in perfect health. Truth in Television: small non-melanoma skin cancers are, if surgically removed, a small annoyance at worst.
    • Bob has thyroid cancer, and while his treatment is slightly more intense (he has to use radioactive iodine and becomes radioactive for a week, also increasing his risk of other cancers slightly), once that week is over and his surgery is complete, while he may have to cope with issues related to low thyroid until his hormone replacement is successful, he also has a 90% survival rate and no need for ongoing care aside from taking his thyroid hormones correctly.
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    • Betty has a more serious cancer (maybe even a terminal one), but she doesn't really care about any sort of deep implications, and tends to have a low-key snarky and humorous approach to the idea of cancer.
  • Justified:
    • For exactly the reasons mentioned in the main article. With the exceptions of most non-melanoma skin cancers and 90% of thyroid cancers which are curable by surgery alone, or in the case of those thyroid cancers, surgery and/or one radiation treatment; slow-growing prostate cancer in men over 70 to 75 - where something else will likely kill before the cancer; and a very small percentage of breast and bowel cancers when detected very early, no spread was possible, and surgery alone is a cure, cancer is a very serious disease no matter what kind it is or what stage it is, one that is capable of killing you and where the treatment will often make you wish it had, and for those who think on levels other than the biological mechanism (and even on that level) there are so many questions and meanings to even the word "cancer."
    • Because it's more believable as a serious, deadly illness than a cold, the Soap Opera Disease, or an entirely unexplained Incurable Cough of Death. Unfortunately, in the hands of bad writers, it becomes the new Soap Opera Disease and/or Convenient Terminal Illness.
  • Inverted:
    • A cancer diagnosis is celebrated as the best thing that could ever happen to anyone.
    • People throw "cancer parties" themed around celebrating cancer and exposing themselves to cancer risks, from passing around radioactive sources and body-painting with radium paint to binge drinking - no red wine, though, that can prevent cancer - and smoking cigarettes - the higher tar and nicotine the better.
    • Cancer is seen as a joke or not serious.
  • Subverted:
    • There is a far more serious/painful/potentially terminal disease than cancer.
    • While cancer is serious, the story itself treats it as a subplot or a side plot. The main story isn't seriously about cancer, and may get a lot of things related to it wrong, either being The Theme Park Version or Ripped from the Headlines.
  • Double Subverted:
    • However, the side plot or subplot becomes a Plot Tumour. This is done on purpose as an allegory for cancer.
    • The more serious/painful/potentially terminal disease has cancer as one of its symptoms/associated disorders; e.g. Kaposi's sarcoma in untreated HIV/AIDS.
  • Parodied:
    • A minor to moderate easily curable illness is treated with the same fear and gravitas as cancer and even described in similar terms. (Does not apply if the minor to moderate illness was once terminal pre-antibiotics or pre-treatment for it - e.g. syphilis or pneumonia)
    • Someone literally tries to live their life avoiding causes of cancer and seeking out cures of cancer from the Daily Mail. They get cancer from the Daily Mail itself.
  • Zig Zagged:
    • Alice is diagnosed with a small breast tumor that is removed by surgery alone, dismisses it, and goes on with her life. The cancer returns, and during the far more involved surgery and chemotherapy, she begins to reflect on the nature of cancer and has a deep spiritual experience from seeking out a religious method of healing as well to deal with the "need" to "purify" herself. The cancer goes away, and she credits her religion as much if not more than her doctors. Then it comes back again, as a terminal liver metastasis - which makes her become a Hollywood Atheist and blame religion for adding to her pain before she dies.
    • Bob is misdiagnosed with terminal cancer due to a mistake and told to prepare to die within the next six months. Despite feeling in perfect health he begins to do so, convinced that he is dying, and goes through all of the grief and pain that the trope played straight consists of, and begins chemotherapy and begins to suffer its effects. He gets a phone call from the doctor three months later, begging for forgiveness and a quick, quiet settlement, because somehow his file and blood samples and other tests were mixed up with someone else's, and until the anxiety of believing his death was imminent and the effects of early chemo, he was in perfect health.
  • Averted:
    • No one has cancer in the story.
    • There is no reason for cancer to be a part of the story, and the writers have the good sense not to include it if they can't treat it well.
    • The story was from a time when all cancers = death sentences and the word "cancer" itself was not even to be spoken, and the diagnosis even possibly hid from the patients themselves, so there is no "cancer" = it is cancer, but it is shown as Soap Opera Disease or Incurable Cough of Death or similar.
  • Enforced:
    • The story is about a Real Life cancer patient/survivor.
    • Similar to Justified: cancer is one of the most serious "go-to" diseases, with a lot of allegorical meanings and psychospiritual context as well as the obvious thing of being a possibly fatal illness that is at the very least often incredibly serious and disabling. If you want to write something longer than a Sick Episode about an illness, or that is a medical drama, cancer is one with the most dramatic possibility, as the only things even close for dramatic potential in-story in most stories that are set in Like Reality Unless Noted universes are heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and sudden accidents.
    • In a work written in The '80s or early in The '90s, Moral Guardians and Executive Meddling insisted the story be about cancer rather than about HIV/AIDS.
    • The work is trying to draw attention to cancer in order to encourage people to donate for treatment/cure research/etcetera.
    • The work is a Medical Drama or otherwise set in a hospital or hospice setting, where not having anyone have cancer would seem strange (as it is either the #1 or #2 cause of death in most Westernized countries)
  • Lampshaded:
    • "Why does anyone who gets cancer in a movie or TV show always die?"
    • "Oh look, it seems Mary Sue has cancer of the hidden wings in her back..."
    • "You have stomach cancer."
    • "The doctor said I have cancer and six months to live."
    • "Someone I knew died of liver cancer almost five years ago. I quit drinking because of that, and it's amazing how much everyone drinks around here..."
  • Invoked:
  • Exploited:
  • Defied:
    • The writer is a cancer survivor himself or herself, and decides not to use an experience as commonplace as cancer for drama because of the possibility of offending and triggering people.
    • The writer wants to be more creative with their potentially fatal disease that includes an Incurable Cough of Death, and goes with tuberculosis or another overwhelming infectious cause, emphysema/COPD, or something else TV and movies generally don't go with.
    • People have cancer, but either due to more curability or for whatever other reason, it's not a big deal and not seen as anything that horrific.
  • Discussed:
    • "Don't you understand how serious this is? I could have cancer."
    • "No, I don't want a smoke, are you trying to give me cancer?"
  • Conversed: "So in A Winter Rose, the world famous pop singer dies of cancer, and yet somehow before she does mentors her replacement and trains her to be her, and then conveniently dies. If I could throw that movie into a wall I would."
  • Implied:
    • A series/show/play/film/book that takes place at an oncology center or hospice or hospital.
    • A sign or product warning mentioning cancer risks. For example, the (widely ignored due to nigh-omnipresence) Proposition 65 signs in California, or the warnings on cigarettes or alcohol.
    • Someone mentions someone else having cancer.
    • Someone mentions donating to a cancer charity or similar.
  • Deconstructed:
  • Reconstructed:
    • Another disease becomes the new Soap Opera Disease and quick go-to for angst and wangst. Cancer is once again treated as a serious, life-threatening disease with potential psychospiritual implications when it is depicted, and is written with respect and understanding.
    • Alternately, the hyper-realistic depiction of cancer mentioned above is seen as too harsh and too emotionally unforgiving, so while cancer is still treated as a topic of grave seriousness, Executive Meddling demands the use of Vomit Discretion Shot for certain scenes, removal of the "screaming in pain and begging to be killed" scenes, and a happy ending involving the person being cured completely...
  • Plotted A Good Waste:
    • Cancer is both disease and metaphor and portrayed in both senses in a well-told story that captures the emotional gravitas of suffering from it.
    • The story exists to deconstruct cancer as a Soap Opera Disease as in Deconstructed and Reconstructed.

It's bad news, we need to go to The Topic of Cancer.

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