Monday, April 08, 2019

"Breaking Bad" and Psychological Transformation After Cancer Diagnosis

In the very popular television series, Breaking Bad, the main character's personality begins to undergo a dramatic change after he receives a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer.  Walter White is ostensibly a meek and mild high school chemistry teacher at the beginning of the series.  The cancer diagnosis seems to bring out parts of his character that were hitherto unexpressed and unknown either to Walter or to his wife. Slowly and shockingly over the course of the five seasons that the show aired, Walt's character displays increasingly ruthless and sociopathic thought patterns and behavior. By the end, Walt is finally able to admit to himself and his wife, that the reason he did all that he did (i.e. cooking extremely high quality methamphetamine and all of the murder and mayhem that ensued), was that it made him feel truly alive, in ways that he had never felt previously. We watch him sacrifice everything, including his relationships with his family and ultimately his life, in order to give expression to needs and feelings that had apparently been split off and dissociated, and which had as a consequence never been integrated into the other parts of his personality.  The cancer offered the excuse and the permission that Walt seemed to need, for his long held back frustration and rage to find a way out. It also seemed to free him to aggressively pursue his desire, something which he seemed unable to do before, resulting in his brilliance going largely unrecognized and unappreciated.

Although most cancer patients/survivors don't undergo the dramatic personality changes that happened to Walter White, they may begin to think and act differently as a result of their cancer experience.  With a new awareness of mortality and limits, a cancer survivor may begin doing things that she had always wanted to do but had been putting off, like a trip to an exotic destination, sky diving, painting, writing or some other creative pursuit. She may also reevaluate her friendships and decide to let go of the ones that pull her down more than they support her. Sometimes cancer survivors are also empowered to begin to address issues in their marriages or with their long time partners that have been simmering for a long time. I would never consider cancer a blessing, but it has the potential to bring matters into clearer focus. It sometimes gives us the permission we need to speak our minds, be more fully ourselves, and courageously follow our hearts desire.  

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