Did Grey’s Anatomy portray cancer accurately?


“Doctors, patients say ‘Grey’s’ cancer story isn’t accurate”. 

So runs the headline in USA Today

“The cliffhanger ending on Thursday’s season finale of Grey’s Anatomy left fans worrying that one of the show’s main characters, surgeon Isobel “Izzie” Stevens, had died after having surgery to remove a brain tumor. Yet some doctors and cancer survivors say they’re more worried that the popular ABC series has been dispensing inaccurate information about treatment options.

“The two-hour broadcast depicted Izzie and her fellow doctors agonizing over how to treat her melanoma — a deadly form of skin cancer — that had spread to her liver, bowel and brain. Because of the location of her brain tumor, doctors presented her with two unattractive options: surgery that could leave her with severe memory problems or a highly toxic drug called interleukin-2, or IL-2.

In fact, doctors never recommend IL-2 for melanoma that has spread to the brain because it can cause bleeding and strokes, says Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society. If doctors are concerned about the risks of surgery, they recommend radiosurgery, in which doctors focus intensive radiation on the tumor, he says.

Wendy Zocks, a Los Angeles publicist, credits radiosurgery with saving her life. Zocks was 33 when she was diagnosed with melanoma, which spread to her brain the next year. Only after the radiosurgery, when her doctors confirmed her brain tumor had been destroyed, did they give her a combination of IL-2 and other immune system boosters to make sure her cancer was gone.

“I hate seeing the wrong message get out there,” says Zocks, now 42. “I hate for people to give up hope.”

“Many people view the cancer problem as much simpler than it actually is,” Brawley says. “That’s because they get their medical information from television shows. But television shows are by and large fictional, and much of the medical information there is also going to be fictional.”

Many of the show’s fans are obsessing over Izzie’s fate. Planetcancer.org, a site for young adults with cancer, features an ongoing discussion about the show.

In general, many cancer survivors praise the way Izzie has been portrayed. She’s shown suffering through chemo, losing her hair, trying to preserve her fertility and explaining to her mother that melanoma is far more serious than most skin cancers. Only about 15% of patients who have advanced melanoma, like Izzie, are alive after five years.

Jacob Burns, 24, of Austin says he’s glad that Grey’s shone a spotlight on cancer in young adults. But Burns says the fictional Izzie, who becomes friends with other young women getting chemo, got far more support than he did. In reality, he says, most cancer patients are elderly and unable to relate to the unique fears of someone so young.

“I just wanted them to portray young-adult cancer patients in that way so that people could understand that we exist, and that it’s very lonely and hard,” says Burns, who’s being treated for a relapse of the leukemia he first developed at 21.”

So what do you think? What kind of message do you think TV shows give out about cancer? Is it an accurate portrayal, given that TV shows are all about heightened drama? It would indeed be worrying if  the show is giving medical advice to a character and someone decides to apply that advice to their real life situation.  However, I would be surprised it this was the case, and I am sure people are clued in enough to separate the fictional from the real. Still, it does raise the issue of the responsibility that lies with TV execs to portray accurate medical information.