'The Big C' offers teachable moment about 'fighting' cancer

May 6, 2013 | by Tami Dennis

Sometimes, breakthroughs must be made not by researchers or individuals but by society. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, City of Hope's Vijay Trisal, M.D., describes a breakthrough that doesn't seem to have occurred: widespread awareness that the outcome of a person’s cancer is not decided by how hard they fight.

Dr. Vijay Trisal, medical consultant for Showtimes' "The Big C," understands why some patients might not appreciate the words "fighting" or "battling." Vijay Trisal, medical consultant for Showtimes' "The Big C," understands why some patients might not appreciate the words "fighting" or "battling."

His response follows a question about Showtime’s “The Big C,” for which he was the medical consultant.

Reporter Mary MacVean asks: “Cathy also got really angry at one point about people using the words 'fighting' or 'battling' cancer. What do you think about those verbs?

Responds Trisal, an assistant professor in the Division of Surgical Oncology:

“I think it is a lot of pressure. The pressure is that if the patient is not getting better, they're not trying hard enough. Look at [Lance] Armstrong. Armstrong had a cancer that has a 98 percent survival rate. … Put that with someone who has even stage 1 pancreatic cancer, and eventually has a 90 percent mortality rate ... it is not based on whether they are trying hard enough, it's based on the disease. We have this belief that death is a failure. Death is not a failure. It is inevitable. How we go is much more critical than when we go.”

In a previous interview with City of Hope’s Roberta Nichols, Trisal said that collaborations between Hollywood and physicians create the potential for “teachable moments.” For a specialist in melanoma, a show about a patient with stage 4 melanoma offered plenty of such moments.

“When you put a face on this metastatic disease, it conveys awareness,” Trisal said.

In this case, the goal was for viewers to pay more attention to their own health – and to the dangers of melanoma.

And, although some patients and their families embrace the use of words such as "fighting" and "battling," perhaps "The Big C" has also taught those unfamiliar with the disease that there’s much more to cancer’s outcome than the “fight.”

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