Coronation Street’s breast cancer storyline

I have been really impressed with the way the scriptwriters on the long-running soap opera, Coronation Street, have dealt with the breast cancer diagnosis of the character of Sally Webster.  When I first read that the soap were introducing this story-line for their Christmas episode, I groaned. It was planned as part of a dramatic storyline which would prevent Sally’s husband leaving her on Christmas Day for the girl he had been having a secret affair with. I thought it sounded tacky and melodramatic, but I have been surprised at how sensitively and realistically the storyline has been handled.

Sally had been diagnosed with breast cancer the week before Christmas, but like so many self-less mothers decided to keep it a secret from her family, so as not to ruin Christmas for them. The strain of this proved to be too much and she broke down and told her husband Kevin,  before Christmas lunch. Sally Whittaker, the actress who plays her, conveyed to viewers the sense of fear, shock and confusion perfectly.

Her over-riding concern was to protect her two daughters until she knew better what she was dealing with. In the end, she had to tell them, as they realised there was something wrong with their mother and jumped to all sorts of conclusions.  Again, the scene where she tells her two girls that she has breast cancer was dealt with sensitively. Sally stresses that they will know better what she is dealing with after she has her lumpectomy but reassures them that they will deal with whatever the result is together. She continues to be a support and comfort for them, but no longer shields them from the truth.

I find the change in the relationship between husband and wife interesting. Kevin, consumed with guilt and concern for his wife, sees his relationship with his younger lover as a regrettable mid-life crisis and dumps her unceremoniously. The shock of her diagnosis appears to have re-ignited all his feelings of love for his wife and the life they have built together over the past 20 years.  The fact that Kevin’s own mother died of breast cancer when he was a young lad also preys heavily on all their minds. It is up to Kevin’s own father to remind them all that advances in cancer have come a long way since those days and that the chances of survival now are hugely improved. This is a good point to make in the storyline – the fact that now there are far more breast cancer survivors, due in large part to early detection. The storyline makes it clear that Sally has found her breast cancer early and done the right thing – as soon as she found a lump in her breast, she went straight to her GP, who referred her immediately for a biopsy. Last night, their eldest daughter, Rosie,  asks if breast cancer is genetic and her father tells her that it is but so long as she takes good care of her health and watches out for the signs, she has nothing to worry about – another point worth making.

Another interesting aspect of the storyline is portrayed in the character of Rosie, who is considering a breast augmentation as her passport to the stardom and riches she dreams of. It is a telling reflection on society’s obsession with looks, fame and stardom – promised through the route of cosmetic surgery. Before knowing her mother’s diagnosis, Rosie tells her parents she is saving for a boob job – her mother’s face a picture of horror as she immediately thinks of her own fate going under the surgeon’s knife but for a wholly different reason. She is horrified that her daughter would “mutilate” herself for such seemingly shallow reasons.

The storyline concerning the reaction of Sally’s co-workers brings up some interesting points too. Not knowing the reason why she has been given time off work, they are busily bitching amongst themselves about the preferential treatment she is getting. This raises the question of privacy in an interesting way. Sally doesn’t want the world knowing her business, but in the end, her secret is revealed and she looses that privacy she wanted to keep for a little while longer. The co-workers when they find out are mortified at their previous reaction, all except for one. Kelly points out that they couldn’t possibly have known the real reason why Sally was given time off work, and doesn’t see how this makes Sally into some kind of saint. She is still the “stuck up” person she has always been, says Kelly and having cancer doesn’t change that. The supervisor, Haley replies that Kelly is wrong and that having a life threatening illness like cancer can change people.  This begs the wider question of whether cancer or any serious illness does indeed change our fundamental personalities and it is a question I have pondered often on this blog.

In last night’s episode, Sally goes into hospital for her lumpectomy and removal of some lymph nodes. They will be tested to see if her cancer is localised or if it has spread. Seeing Sally in her hospital gown, answering the routine questions of the nurse and anaesthetist, waiting to be wheeled down to surgery, vividly brought back the same experience for me and I felt it was very realistically portrayed. There were no dramatic scenes, but still the viewer could sense the fear and worry not just for Sally, but also for her family waiting anxiously in the hospital.

The soap producers say they have worked closely with a panel of breast cancer experts and charities to ensure that Sally’s story is portrayed as realistically as possible and I have to say I think they achieved what they set out to do. It was one of the most realistic and believable portrayals I have seen. I would love to know if you agree with me or what your thoughts are on how this storyline has been handled.

Click here to view last night’s episode (ROI viewers only)