In 2012, there were approximately 13.7 million cancer survivors living in the United States. With one in two men and one in three women receiving a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, it’s likely that most everyone has been affected by cancer in some way, whether directly or indirectly.
Pop culture has started to reflect this truth in big ways, and in my opinion, this is a welcome trend. While not every media-representation of the disease will resonate with each individual cancer journey, its presence means that the days of talking about cancer in hushed voices are fading away. From TV shows like The Big C and movies such as 50/50 to stars and athletes who candidly share their own cancer experiences and wear ribbons to show their support, cancer is starting to become as big a part of pop culture as it is our everyday lives.
Young adult author John Green adds to the growing list of cancer-related media with his 2012 release The Fault in Our Stars. This #1 New York Times bestselling novel tells the story of two teenagers, Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters, who meet in a cancer support group. When a book about a topic I care deeply about received such national acclaim, I was curious to check it out for myself. After devouring it in only a few days, I could easily see why this story is striking a chord with so many.
At the beginning of the book, readers meet Hazel Lancaster, a 16-year-old with a love for reality TV and a dry sense of humor. Hazel was diagnosed at age 13 with stage IV thyroid cancer with metastasis to the lungs and has lived longer than expected due to a clinical trial drug.
Two truths are quickly evident about Hazel: one, she’s funny, and two, she’s a tad cynical. Hazel’s journey, however, takes a turn when she meets Augustus Waters in a cancer support group she’s forced to attend by her parents. Augustus, a 17-year-old osteosarcoma survivor, has a contagious sense of humor and eyes so blue that Hazel feels like she can almost see through them. When these two meet, it becomes obvious that John Green did not intend to write a “cancer book,” but rather, a love story.
This is one reason I appreciate The Fault in Our Stars: While both characters’ stories are definitively shaped by cancer, the disease does not define who they are. And though Hazel and Augustus must continually face the hard questions and side effects that come along with their cancer diagnoses, their charming and quirky personalities are what steal readers’ hearts.
In The Fault in Our Stars, John Green tackles a difficult and raw topic with as much humor as sorrow. He delivers heartbreaking sentiments through laugh-out-loud lines and seamlessly intertwines hope and excitement with cynicism and grief. For me, this juxtaposition makes this work of fiction feel like an honest portrayal of cancer and life.
I enjoyed this book and look forward to the movie adaptation, currently slated for 2014. I hope that the more cancer takes the spotlight in pop culture, the more openly we will talk about our own experiences and questions.
Have you read The Fault in Our Stars yet? What did you think?