Parks and Recreation Reruns Are Helping Me Cope with My Dad's Stage IV Cancer

When one of the people you love most in the world suddenly has a deadline, a TV show about a guy dying slowly of cancer doesn't seem that entertaining.
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Publish date:
March 10, 2016
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parents, family, Cancer, entertainment

When my dad was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, Breaking Bad was the hottest show on TV. Thanks to this, I hate Breaking Bad without ever having seen a single episode. See, when one of the people you love most in the world suddenly has a deadline, a TV show about a guy dying slowly of cancer doesn't seem that entertaining.

My dad and I have a complicated relationship. We absolutely adore each other and are absolutely terrible at expressing it. Dad is tall guy, all muscle, and has a giant beard—he looks like Santa Claus and acts like Johnny Cash. He wanted a "football field worth of kids" but my mom drew the line (around her tubes) after me, so everything he ever wanted to do with kids, he did with me. I was riding along with him on his Harley before I could walk, we'd go hunting and fishing together, he helped me make anime cosplay for conventions. There's a huge list of things we did side by side, stuff he taught me how to do and how to love.

His diagnoses broke me into so many pieces that almost four years later, I'm still picking them up.

This fight with cancer has been a slow and constant one. Cancer doesn't just have one victim, it has many. Though my father may be the one receiving the chemo drugs, my mom and I are going through chemo with him, through every mouth sore, every lost hair, every CAT/PET scan and every untenable day waiting for test results. Dad's cancer is always in the back of my mind and has been every single day since he was diagnosed. So sometimes, just sometimes, I want a fucking break.

But pop media loves to mine tragedy for drama. And a lot of people who consume it forget that what is entertainment to one person is truth to another.

I watch a lot of TV and so do most of my friends. When Breaking Bad reached the height of its popularity, my friends would recommend it to me constantly. I'd gently remind them about what my dad was going through (I've never been the type to keep it quiet - cancer's a war and wars shouldn't be kept secret) and they'd get big-eyed and nod understandingly, then never bring it up again.

Except the ones that didn't.

More than once I've had someone try to explain to me that, "cancer isn't really the plot" or "it's not that big of a deal." People always have the same tone of voice when they try to convince me; they're saying one thing, but what they really mean is: "God, for once could you just ignore the whole cancer thing so we can talk about how great this show is?"

Cancer is inescapable. It lurks in its victims' bodies and it lurks in the DNA of pop culture.

The life cycle of being a fan of a TV show looks a lot like the life cycle of a cancer patient, from where I sit. From week to week you never know what's going to happen until you hit a long, painstaking break in between. Then when you're back to the regular broadcast schedule again, who knows what will happen next? For example, when one of my favorite shows, Parks and Rec, came back for season 7, they did a three year time skip! For example, my dad was cancer free for 10 months—he was two months shy of remission when the cancer came back. It had moved into one of his lungs.

I used to pride myself on how little I cried. Mostly because I always wanted to be more like my dad, who's such a stoic champion that he once nearly cut his thumb off with a table saw, walked upstairs, wrapped a towel around his hand, called a buddy to take him to the ER, waited patiently to see a doctor, found out the only reason he still had a thumb was because the saw got stopped on the bone, got a plastic surgery consult, and then calmly asked if he could have some painkillers.

I cry a lot more easily now than I ever did before. Youtube videos, sappy commercials, Ellen segments, you name it, I'll ugly cry. This is because when I found out my dad had cancer, I started seeing parallels to cancer, mortality and the parent-child relationship in everything. It's bad enough that pop culture loves to tell the cancer story (I read The Fault in Our Stars on the plane ride home to see my parents and cried in the bathroom for 15 minutes) but when you're going through an awful trauma, you see that reflection of trauma everywhere around you. I've taken to warning my mom about what she should or shouldn't watch—How to Train Your Dragon 2 was straight out of the picture because oh boy did I ever start sobbing when Hiccup's giant viking father died.

It's a good bet if it makes me cry, it's going to be worse for my mom, who goes to every oncologist appointment and is in charge of the calendar, which sags under the weight of notes about doctor appointments, chemo sessions, and blood draws.

I'm actually glad that a lot of my friends don't always understand why I avoid a lot of dramatic media now. You can only really understand if you already have so much sadness in your life that vicariously experiencing it seems more like torture instead of a healthy way to way enjoy good stories.

It's not all bad. I've used pop culture to escape more in the last four years than ever before. Parks and Rec has been my favorite comedy since the diagnoses. There's no other show I can sink into and forget that bad things happen as much as I can with Amy Poehler's cheerful and funny take on government and friendship. The worst thing that ever happened in Pawnee was when Lil' Sebastian, the miniature pony the whole town is obsessed with, died. (And you know what? I cried over Lil' Sebastian, too.)

I watch a lot of TV aimed at tweens and teens: Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, Adventure Time, Steven Universe. Shows that are optimistic and hopeful are what I thrive on, and it's sad but true that shows for kids are the best places to find this. Most quality entertainment for adults is pervasively cynical or dark. Though a long time reader and fan of the books, I had to stop watching Game of Thrones thanks to how dark it became—even compared to books well known for their brutality. It didn't help that my dad basically is Ned Stark: too honorable, too hard working, and really just terrible at communicating with his family.

Comic books are another route to escape for me, especially superhero comics, though it's actually a comic book—The Mighty Thor—that's been one of the hardest things to read. When the mantle of Thor was passed to longtime love interest and take-no-shit Jane Foster, it was a big shock. After all, Jane had been fighting cancer, not ice giants, in recent history.

It's been a struggle for me to read as we follow Jane through her chemo appointments, through the weakness and the pain, through the sense of inevitable futility. Though the chemo's effects are negated every time Jane lifts the mighty magic hammer Mjolnir to transform into Thor, Jane can't stop fighting. Her whole life has been about saving people, first as a doctor and now as one of the most powerful heroes around. Jane's fight with cancer is much more frightening than when she faces the dark elf Malekith, the Accursed. It's also much harder to read, with painfully accurate writing and poignant art of the transformation between fit, strong goddess Thor to wasted, emaciated Jane.

I didn't give up on Thor like I've given up on other cancer stories in the last couple of years because there's something in Jane's struggle that doesn't make me feel like this is a story milking cancer for the sake of drama. Jane's a lot like my dad, in some ways. No one knows what she's doing and the cost she's paying for it. I don't think it's because her secret identity is so important, I think it's because she doesn't want to ask for help. She doesn't want to appear weak. As someone who's been giving care all of her life, she doesn't want to need it now.

My family has said from the beginning that my dad's going to fight through this because he's too stubborn to give up. I see that stubborn determination illustrated with an epic scope in The Mighty Thor and it makes me keep reading even though after every issue I end up in tears.

TV, movies, books, comics and video games have been my biggest source of comfort through the last four years. I talk about the practicalities of fighting cancer to other people but I rarely, if ever, talk about how this battle has been affecting me. In some ways, I'm as stubborn as my dad.

But what I watch, listen to and read— these things don't care if I cry when I think about the future. I can turn off Netflix when the dramatic music swells. I can choose not to watch one of the most popular shows of the decade because my own well-being is more important than trading Walter White quotes. I can binge on Leslie Knope being irrepressibly enthusiastic and obnoxiously optimistic, and let myself look at the world a little more brightly. I can cheer for Thor when she fights against misogynist Asgardian gods and I can cry for Jane Foster when the chemo doesn't do anything but make her fingers numb.

I can't escape cancer, but I can drown it out for a while.

Image credit: Ruocaled/CC