Screw You Cancer
Produced by Cathryne Czubek and Ruth Somalo
Imagine that you're a bubbly New York woman in your 20s, with a boyfriend (and future husband), a day job and a blossoming career as a comedian and writer. You also have the BRCA-1 gene mutation, a twist in the genetic lottery — which means that your odds of developing breast and ovarian cancers are far greater than those of the average woman.
When Caitlin Brodnick learned that she had tested positive for the mutation, she went through 3 years of stress and panic attacks; the mutation had been passed down from her father, who had already lost all his immediate family to cancer.
And then she took action. At 28, the bubbly comedian made a serious, life-changing decision: to have a preventative double mastectomy, followed by reconstruction, removing her elevated cancer risk along with her breasts. She also plans to have a hysterectomy when she's 40, when the risk for ovarian cancer increases.
Caitlin's journey – from the phone message she left her mother telling her of the decision, to doctor consultations, loved ones' reactions, frank discussions with supportive husband Allen about the loss of her breasts, surgery and painful recovery, scars, reconstruction and finally, a look toward a happy future – is chronicled in the documentary Screw You Cancer, a 6-part web series which premiered in October 2013 on Glamour magazine's online video channel as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
In less than 43 minutes, the series presents an uncompromising yet still humor-filled, life-affirming look at the process and how it affects not only the woman at the center of the story, but her loved ones.
Produced by Cathryne Czubek and Ruth Somalo, it is the first online program to win a Television Academy Honor award.
"When I first got diagnosed, it felt like I had gotten cancer," recalls Caitlin, who turned 29 during the making of Screw You Cancer. "It was really overwhelming, scary and sad. I freaked out."
When she decided upon the double mastectomy, "I went online, and there wasn't very much information for girls my age. A lot of it was negative information."
Caitlin decided she wanted to capture the process to reach other young women, in a way that was "accessible, to come in as a really fun, cheerful documentary," she says. "I don't have cancer. I'm not some hero."
She contacted a friend, Glamour magazine blogger Megan Angelo, and eventually wound up in the office of Glamour editor-in-chief Cindi Leive, who came on board immediately.
"I had wanted it to be video," Caitlin says, "so that it could be saved, be something on a phone or tablet that could be as public as possible."
Shooting started six weeks before surgery. There are the matter-of-fact medical moments –Caitlin's description of the breast tissue to be removed; physician comments; the surgery aftermath of nausea and pain; close-ups of grapefruit juice-colored fluid drainage post-op; a shot of the array of pill bottles that dwindles as time goes on.
But there are moments of delight – Caitlin's pleasure at being able to wear clothes and styles that her previously large bustline wouldn't allow; her birthday celebration with two "booby"-shaped cupcakes – as well as discovery: who knew there was a male tattoo artist who specializes in reconstructive nipple tattoos?
Screw You Cancer has struck a chord with its intended audience; Caitlin has done video talkbacks, lunches and phone calls with viewers, received numerous emails and Facebook posts and even accompanied one woman to a doctor's appointment.
"The reaction has been incredible," she says. "It's everything I'd hoped for, and more."
As for winning the Television Academy Honor, "We're thrilled that the audience came to the series, and we're thrilled for this honor – and it isn't even television!" says Michael L. Klein, executive vice president of programming and content strategy for Condé Nast Entertainment (CNE), the film-television-digital video division of the media company that publishes Glamour.
"On our Glamour channel, we're telling stories about women going through a transition, in a positive way," he adds. "Caitlin's transition is heavy, but she's so unguarded, authentic. She's super-charming."
The video channel for each Condé Nast magazine brand features original content that represents the voice and audience of that particular brand; Glamour's audience is women 18 to 34. Whatever the channel, these efforts are "all about storytelling," says Klein, who previously held senior executive positions at Sundance Channel and Travel Channel. "No matter the platform, tell me a good story."
— Libby Slate, Special to TelevisionAcademy.com
Watch the Screw You Cancer series on Glamour.com and on YouTube.