"Parenthood"'s Kristina: Her Breast Cancer Journey Turns a Corner

"Parenthood"'s breast cancer storyline strikes a chord. Read about the season finale through the eyes of a young breast cancer survivor.

In the season finale, the viewer rides along with Kristina on an emotional roller coaster.  Relief after her last chemo treatment, anxiety at her PT scan, sadness, fear, and empathy when comforting her cancer friend Gwen, elation at the oncologist's pronouncement that she is cancer-free.  Up and down, up and down in a period of just a few days.

Kristina's reaction to her husband's Hawaiian vacation surprise might seem odd to the viewer.  But her hesitation is all too familiar to cancer patients.  Adam's optimism about her upcoming PT scan is driven by his inability to even consider that the results could be anything other than good news.  His impatience to get away with her is something that he himself says is selfish -- "I'm tired of sharing you with cancer and everybody else."  But Gwen's relapse has a great effect on Kristina.  Adam insists that she's not Gwen, but Kristina's perspective differs -- "Until I have that test we know nothing."  And she's unable to move on until she has the results.

The wordless scene where she slides into the scanner is hard to watch.  She tries to hold in the fear, but it comes out through her eyes.  Her body is tight and stiff on the narrow table.  Ironic that when you're being scanned you're told to stay still, not to take deep breaths -- so you're left to draw on your own thoughts to calm you in the dark.  You fight to turn terrifying thoughts into hopeful ones.  With eyes closed, I visualized Pac Man creatures gobbling up the tumor and a bright light shrinking it, and I spoke in my head to my long-deceased Dad, and to God. 

Only one of Kristina's diagnostic tests was shown on screen, but many women undergo numerous tests -- scans, biopsies, x-rays, and blood tests.  Tunnels, radioactive injections, nauseating drinks, IV contrasts.  Even a simple blood test can be filled with trepidation, for example, when being drawn to determine if you carry a genetic mutation.

The oncologist gives Kristina the wonderful PT results but reminds her of her upcoming radiation treatments and the routine tests that she will take to make sure she's still in remission.  He cautions, "We don't use the word 'cure' for five years."  She'll take it! She's ready to go to Hawaii!

And she's ready to offer help to others.  In the closing montage she gives Gwen the cancer sweater that Camille had given to her earlier -- the sweater that had been handed down from other survivors and that had kept her warm and comforted during her chemo sessions.  When Kristina was diagnosed, Gwen held Kristina's hand.  Now Gwen is fighting Stage 4 cancer, and Kristina holds hers.  Vital to getting through our diagnosis and treatment, and thriving beyond is the support of our "sisters" whom we know understand the terror and elation and everything in between.

If the show comes back next season, we'll see the Old Kristina with her hair grown back -- she'll look as she did before.  But she will have changed on the inside. Notice that she is already lighter-hearted.  She bought some funky wigs and wears a pink one to Adam's office.  She's come far from the woman sent reeling by Adam's purchase of a "hooker" wig.  She's living a little more in the moment. As a result of her heightened awareness about her lack of control over her life, her rigidity will soften.  She will better be able to discern the mountains from the molehills.  She'll greater appreciate being there for the milestones.  She will reprioritize what is really important to her.  I'm sure the New Kristina will make some changes.

At first, survivorship was a difficult concept for me to wrap my head around.  After surgery, my treatment consisted of hormonal medications, one of which I was told I would use for five years.  It was difficult to talk about the experience in the past tense.  "I had breast cancer," did not easily roll off my tongue, while I still felt physically and emotionally pummeled by the radical changes to my body and my state of mind.  It was 16 months before reconstruction was completed and even longer than that before my doctor appointments were scheduled far enough apart that I didn't feel like a cancer patient.

It was six months before I hesitantly acknowledged myself as a survivor for the first time.  In 2009, the summer after my January surgery, I was on a ferry boat in California, traveling from Larkspur to a Giants baseball game in San Francisco.  I sat on a bench back-to-back with a young woman wearing an interesting pink breast cancer cap.  I asked her about it, and she proudly told me that her mother is a survivor.  "Me too," I said.  Two small words, one huge statement.

That moment is even bigger and stranger and more meaningful now.  Because at that moment when I declared myself a survivor there was an actor I recognized on the ferry who stood at the railing a few feet in front of me -- I recently found out that his mother was a survivor too -- it was Peter Krause, who would three years later play the role of husband of breast cancer fighter Kristina...

...And here's my last blog, written about the finale where Kristina finds out she's cancer-free -- posted on January 28, 2013 -- the fourth anniversary of my survival!


I dedicate this piece to my "amiga", Ruth, whom I met when she was a two-time survivor in remission, and who began her fight for a third time over a year ago.  To Ruth, who inspires with her honesty and her bravery, and who I pray has many more survivor anniversaries.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Gabrielle Monroe February 03, 2013 at 06:25 PM
Thanks so much for sharing your story Helene, and weaving in your reality with that of the TV character Kristina. I enjoyed Parenthood more than ever this season, and it was made especially rich through your insight. So happy for your 4th anniversary, and to many, many more!!
Helene Schonbrun February 04, 2013 at 12:41 PM
Gabrielle, I appreciate your comment. It's often difficult to write the pieces but so worthwhile when I hear from readers like you. And thanks so much for your good wishes!
James Adnaraf February 06, 2013 at 03:13 AM
Cancer has hit so many families, and in spite of progress in treating many types of cancer, and in curing a few types (when detected early), a diagnosis of cancer permanently changes a person's outlook on life. Never delay the legitimate, non scandalous joys in your life. Waiting until the perfect moment, or some point in the future, such as retirement, is not the way to get the most out of life.
Helene Schonbrun February 07, 2013 at 01:41 PM
James, I agree with you whole heartedly. Time is precious. I am much more conscious of how I spend it and more grateful for the moments I once took for granted. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I wish you all the best.


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