Health

What Breaking Bad Taught Me About Cancer

And why Walter White became my role model

I couldn’t stop thinking about it, the mustard stain.

Dr. C. was looking me straight in the eye, but I was fixated on the sparkling white lapel of his lab coat. Through the slow motion blur of his words, I could make out a phrase here and there: "Stage 2 … blah blah blah … chemo … blah blah blah … mastectomy … blah blah blah …"

At the moment my doctor was informing me I had breast cancer, I couldn’t stop thinking about Walter White.

It was exactly two days after watching the series premiere of "Breaking Bad" when I found myself in the very same position, in the very same scene, feeling the same surreal sense of detachment. In the show, while Walt’s doctor is explaining to him that he has inoperable lung cancer and most likely has less than two years to live, Walt is utterly transfixed by a tiny yellow dot on the doctor’s jacket. “I have to make sure you understand what I’m saying to you,” the doctor says, seeing a glazed look in Walt’s eye. He responds, “It’s just that you have this mustard stain …"

Over the weeks after my diagnosis, I became obsessed with the show. My tests and treatments and vomiting and weight loss and hair loss and good news and bad news were punctuated by those Sunday nights. Alternating waves of fear and relief, anger and elation, depression and denial would engulf me and, as I felt each wave of emotion carving new contours into my personality, my identity, the way a river cuts a path through a canyon, I became increasingly desperate to see the way cancer was transforming Walter White.

For my friends, the ones without cancer, Walt went from being a doormat to being a monster. But for me, the one with a time bomb ticking away inside my chest, he became a role model.

I always watched alone, so I could pause and replay the scenes and the speeches and cry and laugh without having to explain or discuss a fucking thing.

A few months after my diagnosis, I was sitting across the desk from Dr. C. when he looked me in the eye and told me it was time; I needed to make the decision about a mastectomy. He recommended it. Coldly and clearly, he explained why. I didn’t pick up the phone when he called the next day or the next week or the week after that.

Then one Sunday night, I was curled up in my usual spot at one end of the sofa with a plate of gooey nachos on my lap and a cold Red Stripe on the coffee table beside me. I turned out all the lights and waited. I waited to see what Walter would do next. The episode began in a medical center waiting room. Walt was in a hospital gown, awaiting a PET CT scan. In a chair beside him was another patient, a guy whose fear was hanging out like his ass through the back of that flimsy white gown.

SCARED GUY

… for me, that’s been the biggest wake-up call, letting go, giving up control. It’s like they say, ‘Man plans and God laughs.’

WALTER

That is such bullshit! Never give up control. Live life on your own terms.

SCARED GUY

I get what you’re saying. But … cancer is cancer.

WALTER

To hell with your cancer. I’ve been living with cancer for the better part of a year. Right from the start, it’s a death sentence. That’s what they keep telling me. Well, guess what? Every life comes with a death sentence. So every few months, I come in here for my regular scan knowing full well that one of these times, hell, maybe even today, I’m gonna hear some bad news, but until then, who’s in charge? Me. That’s how I live my life.

The next morning I called Dr. C. and told him what I’d decided to do.