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‘Dead to Me’: Cancer Risks and Human Psychology

If you haven’t binged “Dead to Me,” yet, it’s time to start. The short episodes featuring Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini pack a punch. They are witty, dark and amazing. Bookmark this page and come back to it after you’ve seen the series. There are spoilers after the trailer.

Jen (Christina Applegate) found out she had the breast cancer gene and decided to undergo a double mastectomy to protect her family from the pain and suffering she went through when her mother died early due to breast cancer. She does this because she has seen the stress and sorrow that breast cancer can cause. Yet, Jen still smokes and drinks a lot, so while she has reduced the cancer risk due to her genetics, she has increased her overall cancer risk due to lifestyle choices. And it’s an unfortunately too realistic portrayal of decisions people make every day.

At first glance and with deeper thinking, it may seem like Jen’s decision to smoke and drink is in direct opposition to her decision to have a double mastectomy to reduce her risk of cancer. After all, smoking causes cancer, and recent studies have shown that alcohol is the cause of “several types of cancer.” It should be a no-brainer for Jen to give up these vices; instead, she dives headfirst into them.

In some ways, having a double mastectomy is the easier decision because it only has to be made once. There is a lot that goes into that decision, but once it’s made and the procedure is done, there’s no going back. Someone who should quit smoking or drinking needs to make the decision to not participate in those activities every day. Sometimes, the addiction is bad enough that an active decision needs to be made several times a day. It’s not just one decision and it’s over. Instead, it’s a continuous process of decision-making that doesn’t get easier.

Smoking and drinking are socially acceptable. Having a smoke or drink with someone is a way to bond with that person. Jen is in a position where she needs a support system. These activities are a socially acceptable way to make interactions easier.

Smoking and drinking provide solace and improve mood. Jen is facing the death of her husband and the problems that come with it. Alcohol is a depressant, which would make it easier for her to sleep at night. Smoking provides a comforting habit while producing a positive-emotion effect. Both these things are helping her deal with her sadness, her feelings and the tragedy she has experienced.

Regardless of her personal experience, Jen has fallen into the trap that many people succumb to. She doesn’t believe that smoking or alcohol will harm her in the long run. She experienced the death of her mother due to cancer, but that cancer was ostensibly caused by the BCRA gene not by other behavioral and environmental factors. While the cause of cancer is often more complicated than people want to believe, it’s easier to have a procedure done than it is to change behavior and overcome the addictiveness of nicotine and alcohol.

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‘Dead to Me’: The Measure of Womanhood

If you haven’t binge-watched “Dead to Me,” what are you waiting for? With episodes coming in at under 30 minutes, you’re getting a series that can fit in with almost any schedule, and every episode packs a punch of drama, comedy, pathos and the exploration of psychology that comes with it. Bookmark this page, go watch the show and then come back here for the discussion. Spoilers are below the trailer.

Jen (Christina Appplegate) found out she had the gene related to breast cancer and got a double mastectomy (Applegate went through the procedure IRL in 2008) to save her family the trauma of what she went through when her mother died. (She still smokes heavily, but that’s for a different blog post.) After the surgery, her husband stops being intimate with her, and unbeknownst to her, he finds a younger woman with larger breasts to start a relationship with. He told this girl that he was a widower and his wife died from breast cancer.

While Judy’s (Linda Cardellini) case is a little more complicated, she says her fiancé left her after she had her fifth miscarriage. He couldn’t deal with the pain or the letdowns, and he wanted to have a family at some point.

These two experiences are parallel. As the two women have their womanhood and desirability called into question when they, for all intents and purposes, lose the body parts that make them female. Is Jen any less worthy of her husband’s love after she sacrifices for the sake of her family’s future? Is Judy less deserving of love because she hasn’t been able to bring a child to term?

Most people would say “No,” probably including these two women’s husbands before the procedure and the miscarriage had the hypothetical been asked of them. For all of American society’s supposed advances in rights and body image, the U.S. still values women for how they look and their ability to bear children. Nowhere is that point made better without it being preached than in “Dead to Me.”