Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Happy Cancer Chick - The Women Behind the Web Series - Part 1 of 3

Two weeks ago I celebrated a (re)birthday.  On the evening of January 16, 2012, I received a phone call from a radiologist with the results of a biopsy on my left breast a week earlier.  She told me the words no one wants to hear. 

“I’m sorry. It’s cancer.”

As of today I have had three surgeries, underwent twenty cycles of chemotherapy and am still receiving targeted medicine via infusion every three weeks. I take a tablet of Tamoxifen every single day and will for the next five years. I gave up a breast, gained an implant and proactively shaved my head before chemo could render me bald.

And I thrived through it all. 

At the Season 2 Premiere of HAPPY CANCER CHICK at the Clearview Cinemas in NYC.

Once the shock, anger and terror wore off, I made a decision to use my cancer experience to transform me. I would examine my life, make changes for the better and recommit to living fully. Nor was I going to wait for the completion of treatment and a declaration of “no evidence of disease” to begin. With or without the specter of cancer, I intended to be happy.

So it was only fitting that my “survivorsary” celebration included attending the premiere of the second season of the web series Happy Cancer Chick. Created by Linda Nieves-Powell who co-produced it with Jenny L. Saldaña, each of the five webisodes tells the story of a woman for whom a cancer diagnosis became a journey toward self-love. 

The series, however, is not just for people who have been touched by cancer or who are curious about it. There are lessons here for all of us on taking stands for ourselves, finding light in the darkest situation and otherwise living authentically now. As a major supporter of media that matters – especially when produced by women who don’t wait for someone else to give them the green light – I had to ask my friends at Happy Cancer Chick what inspired the series, how they produced it and what they learned and share that with others.  The first of my three-part Q&A begins after the clip which features the story of Vanessa Ghighliotty, a single mother who learned how to advocate for herself.... and take more pictures. 

SQ:  Season 2 takes a completely different approach from Season 1. What did you hope to accomplish with these changes? What has been the reaction of those who have been following the series from the beginning?

LNP: This journey began after reading one of Jenny's blog posts about being rejected at a cancer survivor audition for being too happy.  Well, the “too happy” part was her take, and I thought her take was funny but also very inspirational.  So we started writing episodes for a fictional character named Lola based on some real events in Jenny's life.  Then came Season 2, and we discovered there wasn't much more to say about Lola.  This was the biggest challenge for us because how many ways can you talk about cancer and be happy funny about it without becoming insensitive and somewhat careless?  So after struggling for months to write something great, I felt that the best way to continue this journey was to share the real stories of other woman.  Real Happy Cancer Chicks who were able to stay positive during the greatest challenge of their lives and who mirrored Jenny's personality and perspective.

JLS: When Linda said "let's do this about real women!" I was elated. I work with 'real' women every day and being able to tell some of their stories was going to be a blessing for all.

LNP:  The reaction to Season 1 is very different than Season 2, mainly because the approach to both are so different. Season One is outrageous and made some folks a little uncomfortable and unsure about what they should or should not laugh at.  Season 2 is more documentary, less comedy, but I feel, equally inspiring and easier to swallow.


SQ:  What has been most rewarding aspect of creating HHC? The most challenging? And what did you say to people who suggest that you are making light of cancer, and that's something that shouldn't be done?

JLS: The most rewarding thing for me was connecting to these amazing, remarkable and powerful women who NEVER gave up. The most challenging was trying to tell their stories in less than 10 minutes! After our Shit Girls Say To Girls With Breast Cancer video, I think most people know where we're coming from. No one thinks – that I know of – we’re making light of cancer.

LNP: The most rewarding aspect is the response to these stories from both the audience and the women featured.  The other reward is having made it to the finish line. The web, as a storytelling medium, is new territory and at times can be challenging.  We're beginning to learn how to use this chaotic, very busy, digital frontier to tell stories. 

But this is not TV.  This is not film. This is different and you really do find out what works and what doesn't.  I find that comedy on the web works differently than on television or movies.  If the joke doesn't come fast, viewers will tune out fast.  The setup has to be introduced much quicker.  If the audience doesn't get the joke, they will let you know in the frankest ways too.  And everyone and I mean EVERYONE is a critic. We had a few people tell us that we're going to hell for laughing at cancer.   

People are not on the web to watch TV unless they are looking for an old episode of their favorite show.  They are here to pass time, stay connected with people, and maybe learn something new or have a laugh.  But this PC or Tablet experience is different than someone sitting on a sofa tuning into a TV show.  I do believe now that TV's are being made to be Internet Ready, things will change.  My son spends more time on YouTube then on TV.  He knows what he wants to see, finds it, and spends hours on it.  This is the future of something, but not sure what yet. 

Stay tuned for Parts II and III of my Q & A with the fierce women behind Happy Cancer Chick. In the meantime, you can check out all five webisodes here and on Facebook. And by all means, comment and share!