In The Big C, a new series on Showtime, Laura Linney plays Cathy Jamison, a woman diagnosed with advanced Stage IV melanoma who initially refuses treatment and delays telling her family about her bleak prognosis. Instead, she makes drastic changes to her life, and begins to make the most of her final days - "letting her freak flag fly," as Showtime puts it.
In last night's emotional season finale, Cathy decided to try interleukin-2 (IL-2), a treatment option for those with Stage IV melanoma. About 10-16 percent of carefully selected patients on IL-2 regimens respond to the drug, and about 60 percent of those patients' lives are significantly extended.
The show may not always provide an accurate portrayal of an individual's struggle with a terminal cancer diagnosis, but the series has raised awareness about melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. It's hard not to root for Cathy as she navigates her diagnosis. It was a testament to the endurance of the human spirit when she decided to fight for her life.
This 'dramedy' is intended to be entertaining, not educational. But from the perspective of The Skin Cancer Foundation, The Big C serves an important purpose. The Foundation hopes viewers are entertained, but also that they recognize the seriousness of this disease, which, in many cases, is preventable and treatable.
The incidence of many common cancers is falling, but the incidence of melanoma continues to rise significantly, at a rate faster than that of any of the seven most common cancers. Approximately 68,130 invasive melanomas will be diagnosed this year in the U.S., with nearly 8,700 resulting in death. Over the years, as western society has embraced tropical vacations, tanning beds and bikinis, our exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation has intensified. About 65 percent of melanoma cancers can be attributed to UV radiation.
But there is good news: The survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early, before the tumor has penetrated the epidermis, is about 99 percent. Unfortunately, the survival rate falls to 15 percent for people like Cathy, who are diagnosed with an advanced case of the disease. The risks of developing skin cancer can be dramatically and easily reduced through education, behavior modification, and early detection.The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends seeking shade, using an SPF 15+ sunscreen daily, and covering up with clothing, including broad-brimmed hats and UV-blocking sunglasses. Be sure to examine your skin from head-to-toe regularly (ideally, once a month) and see your physician every year for a professional skin exam. Early detection and treatment of skin cancer are crucial.
The creators of The Big C have said they are not trying to tell people how to live with cancer. Regardless of their intent, The Skin Cancer Foundation applauds Darlene Hunt, the show's creator, for her courage to take on this topic, and Ms. Linney, for her remarkable performance. And we thank them for putting a spotlight on melanoma.
Perry Robins, MD
Dr. Robins is President of The Skin Cancer Foundation, and the author of Understanding Melanoma: What you need to know. For more information on melanoma, please visit www.SkinCancer.org/Melanoma.