Catherine Avery's Cancer Plot Line on 'Grey's Anatomy' Is Based on My Life. This Is Why I Finally Wrote About It.
Every television writer I know finds ways to honor pieces of their life stories: their favorite teachers; their grief over their mother; the final word in a break-up they always wanted but never got. But when my job at Grey’s Anatomy asked me if I would not only write about cancer, but also admit it’s my life, I wanted to say no. No to the showrunner I love on the show I’ve worked on for five years. A big, fat, super-emphatic, though ever-polite “No.”
This is how I typically handle anything anyone asks me to do that I truly want to do, but don’t have to do. I say, “No, thank you.”
Except when it comes to work. I am pathologically incapable of saying no to work. (It’s on my list of things to work on; don’t worry about it.) In fact, I’m certain the only reason the bone cancer I was diagnosed with in my thirties didn’t kill me is that my friends and family convinced me it was my actual job to survive it.
My boss, Krista Vernoff, suggested I use my point of view as a person with cancer to write a storyline where one of our beloved characters is diagnosed, too. I immediately flashed to nine months and four days prior, where I sat in a cancer support group I attended (only once, because I’m as good at asking for help as I am saying no) and a scarf-clad 90lb 60-something woman railed against her doctors. Her oncologist failed to tell her she’d lose her hair or breast or sex drive when they discussed treatment options. “I guess he figured I was done caring about how I looked, or how badly I wanted to screw my hot-tot husband,” she said. No one laughed. Because we were all too used to doctors who didn’t tell us the truths we needed to hear.
I was certain Catherine Fox should be the character we diagnosed with cancer-a brilliant, vibrant, sexy, 60-something world-class surgeon-whose fire is matched only by the actress who plays her: Debbie Allen. I wanted Catherine to be diagnosed with a spinal tumor similar to mine, only this time, the doctors would tell her the truth. Because she, like the rest of the world, shouldn’t have it any other way.
So I started outlining the episode with the support of an amazing writing staff, but I secretly convinced myself the episode would never air. It was the only way I knew how to write it without breaking my rule of never saying “no” to work.
[F]ew people ever really talk about cancer. Not the raw, honest way people with cancer talk to each other. Or the way we need to talk about it with the ones we love.
I wrote in such a frenzy of fear and doubt, I didn’t recognize how much of me I wrote into the episode until I was on set, all of it staring me right in the face. On one of the first days of shooting, Richard Webber took a baseball bat to a bar, screaming at a bartender for preying on recovering alcoholics, and everyone rightfully cheered at how fantastically Krista choreographed it and how achingly perfect actor Jim Pickens, Jr. executed it. I, however, rather embarrassingly, started to cry as I thought of how hard so many people in my life work for their sobriety. When Grey Sloan’s beloved Nurse Frankie talked about being a single mom by choice and trusting her village, I saw my childhood friend Amy Shavelson who chose the life I never had the bravery for. When Maggie bolted from Jackson, unable to feel the messy, painful reality in front of her, I saw my own years-long relationship walk out the door. But mostly, when Catherine sat at the bar and dared her doctors to talk honestly and plainly about cancer-that was the battle cry I held inside me every damn day of chemotherapy. Because few people ever really talk about cancer. Not the raw, honest way people with cancer talk to each other. Or the way we need to talk about it with the ones we love.
People too-often talk around cancer, pretending it’s not there-as if even uttering the words aloud might somehow make it worse. And Catherine Fox calls her doctors out on that immediately: “Do you think if you talk about it it’ll scare me, or remind me…I have a granddaughter I want to watch take over the world. You don’t think I’m sitting here wondering if I’ll get to? There is nothing you could possibly say that’s worse than what I’ve been imagining since the second I saw those scans.”
Substitute grandchildren for my two godchildren and every word Catherine uttered was what I wished I could’ve said when I was at my sickest. And suddenly I felt myself crack wide open. But unlike Maggie, I couldn't bolt.
I didn't need to. I had a literal village (on screen and off) of bold, brave women (and a few truly great men) who had my back from day one. And it finally occurred to me: that’s why I ultimately said “yes” in the first place.
I said yes because Krista Vernoff gave me the ultimate vote of confidence by choosing this episode to make her directing debut. That she excelled at directing is unsurprising, but she also protected the words and ideas that mattered most to me fiercer than any Showrunner I’ve ever seen. I said yes because we had actors whose talent and commitment broke my heart daily, in the best possible way. I said yes because my fellow writers, Andy Reaser and Meg Marinis, kept me sane. I said yes because Shonda once wrote me an email where she told me “love yourself more”-and when Shonda says something like that, you listen.
I said yes because my fellow Shondaland writer and childhood cancer survivor Tia Napolitano taught me the value of telling the truth about cancer. I said yes for the 60-something scarf-clad woman whose name I was too sad and chemo-brainy to remember nine months and four days ago. I said yes because Debbie Allen is DEBBIE FREAKING ALLEN.
But mostly, I said yes because of Sha Page and Erin Grant who, in the last year, joined the ever-growing list of women with cancer I’ve known and loved and lost too soon. And I said yes because out 12 women in my clinical trial I am the only one who survived.
I said yes to telling my story because I’m lucky enough to get to.