The Power of TV: Reshaping Breast Cancer Narratives

Hollywood showrunners, writers and producers were joined by a medical expert for a discussion about young women affected by early onset breast cancer, how the disease disproportionately affects women of color, and the importance of messaging to raise awareness about risk.

“The Power of TV: Reshaping Breast Cancer Narratives,” co-presented by Hollywood, Health & Society and the Television Academy Foundation on Wednesday, Jan. 25 to a standing-room audience at the Saban Media Center, featured the following guest speakers:

As the event’s title implies, popular entertainment (especially TV) can play a critical role in getting the message out about breast cancer, whose incidence rates have risen in most of the past four decades. Patients and loved ones often have a difficult time coping with the disease, which touches the lives of so many (a show of hands among audience members at the beginning of the panel underscored this fact).

Watch full panel

The CDC reports that disparities in breast cancer outcomes exist, with non-Hispanic Black women having the highest breast cancer death rates compared to women in other racial and ethnic groups. The gap, according to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, is partly because of social, economic, and behavioral factors, and women of color “are more likely to have inadequate health insurance or access to health care facilities, which may affect screening, follow-up care, and completion of therapy.”

The American Cancer Society reports that an estimated 30% of breast cancer cases are attributed to such preventable risk factors as excess body weight, physical inactivity, and alcohol intake. Dr. Thompson added that women should assess their risk by first taking into account their age, genetic predisposition and lifetime exposure to the hormone estrogen, which can fuel the development and growth of some cancers.

Increasing the frequency of such messages about breast cancer and its risk factors on TV shows can be important in saving lives, said Dr. Thompson.

“The overall survival rate for early stage breast cancer is 99%,” she said. “Prevention really makes a difference.”

The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation website reports the lifetime risk of breast cancer for women in the U.S. at about 13 percent, and as noted by Dr. Thompson the disease does not discriminate when it comes to race. However, the risk varies by race and ethnic group. 

The American Cancer Society continues to recommend annual mammogram tests beginning at age 40, and while breast cancer in younger women is rare, according to an article on the Yale Medicine website, it is the most common cancer among women ages 15 to 39. 

“Young women have to look after themselves,” Dr. Thompson told the panel audience, basing their decisions on their own health profiles.

Smith, whose critically acclaimed Dickinson was a Peabody Award winner in 2020, recounted her own existential journey as a woman at high risk of breast cancer.

In a December 2022 article in The New York Times titled “A Previvor’s Tale,” Smith wrote of taking a genetic screening test after telling her doctor that her paternal grandmother had died of breast cancer at age 38 (Smith was 35 at the time and trying to start a family).

“Two weeks later, driving to work—as a writer on the TV show “The Affair”—I got a phone call telling me the future. I had a BRCA1 hereditary gene mutation, which meant I had an 80 percent chance of getting the aggressive breast cancer that had killed my grandmother when she was just three years older than I was then, and a 40 percent chance of developing an undetectable ovarian cancer that was likely to be fatal as well.” 

While dealing with the physical and emotional challenges of trying to become pregnant, Smith wrote in The Times that she chose to follow a program of “high-risk cancer surveillance” with her doctors. In 2017 (about the time she sold the show about Emily Dickinson), Smith became pregnant with twins through in vitro fertilization. In the years after giving birth, she had surgery to remove her ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus and cervix, and, finally, underwent a double prophylactic mastectomy.

Smith told the audience at the Television Academy that her situation as a previvor presented her with a bewildering number of medical decisions (“Do you remove ovaries before or after having a mastectomy?”).

“You absolutely need a support group around you,” she said, “because there is so much information that’s difficult to figure out or get straight answers on.”

For Vernoff, breast cancer storylines simply reflect the larger truth around us.

“Everyone [in writers rooms] has a story about a relative or loved one with breast cancer,” Vernoff said. “Every time I hear a breast cancer story it breaks some preconceived notion.” 

Vernoff said that shows should let go of the old standard that messages take away from entertainment.

Even the realm of a superhero fantasy series is helping to raise the awareness of the risk. “We’ve looked at cancer as being sort of a supervillain,” said Korzec, who added that Season 3 of Superman & Lois will involve a breast cancer diagnosis for Lois in the episode “Uncontrollable Forces,” which airs March 21. The rest of the season will deal with Lois’ treatment.

“[Television] has the power to entertain and also educate,” Korzec told the audience. 

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force currently recommends biennial mammography screening for women aged 50–74 years. Women aged 20–49 years might benefit from discussing potential breast cancer risk and ways to reduce risk with their health care providers. Find out more