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‘Alexa & Katie:’ Is Its Portrayal of Cancer Accurate Enough?

Alexa & Katie is a brilliant teen dramedy about Alexa (Paris Berelc), who is beating her leukemia (cancer of the white blood cells) with the help of her best friend Katie (Isabel May), her family and her support system at the hospital.

The Netflix show, whose second season was released last week, has gotten some flack for not being accurate enough. My mum is a children’s cancer nurse, so I’ve learned quite a bit about cancer from her. I’m going to look at a few of the plot points from both seasons and comment on their accuracy, so be prepared for spoilers!

Hair Falling Out and Wigs

In the first episode, Alexa has almost finished her intensive treatment and is getting ready for her first day of high school when her hair starts falling out. Usually, the hair starts coming out 10 days after the patient starts chemotherapy, but in some leukaemia cases, the hair starts falling out much later. That means this part is pretty spot on.

Alexa hates it when her hair starts falling out because she does not want everyone at school to know about her cancer. So she tries to get herself and Katie expelled by toilet papering her principal’s house. Many cancer patients lash out at some point during their treatment because they feel like they need to take control of something as they have very little control of their own health. Alexa’s reasoning behind her lashing out could have been made a little clearer; other than that, this part was pretty accurate.

Alexa and Katie after they shaved their heads. Credit: IMDb

When Katie finds out that Alexa’s hair has started falling out, she shaves her head in solidarity. The show makes it seem like people shaving heads in solidarity is really rare when it’s really not. Lots of people do it, some even get sponsored and donate the hair or money to a cancer charity. The “Katie getting her head shaved” part is accurate, but making it seem rare is not. Alexa and Katie then decide to get wigs to cover up their bald heads. Alexa’s family has a comfortable financial situation, so she doesn’t even seem to look at the price tag on the wig she picks out. However, Katie’s mum is a single mum, so they can’t afford a nice wig that costs $300 like Alexa’s family can. Katie must instead buy a cheap, novelty wig. Good quality, realistic wigs can be very expensive, which could make hard-up cancer patients feel more insecure. I like that Alexa & Katie covers this. However, if Alexa’s family did have money problems, they could have gotten help from a cancer charity to cover the costs for a good wig.

The colourful synthetic wig that Katie can afford. Credit: Amazon

In the final episode of season one, Alexa and Katie attend their winter formal with their short hair on display. I think this is such a great message for a young cancer patient. It can be scary to be your authentic self, but Alexa & Katie encourages people to be braver.

Dylan Asking Alexa to the Winter Formal

Alexa tries to hide her cancer for as long as possible at school because she did not want people to feel sorry for her. She eventually reveals the truth after people think Katie has cancer, and Katie begins to wonder if she got the role of Juliet in her school play from sympathy instead of merit. All of Alexa’s fears come true as everyone starts walking on eggshells and being extra nice around her. When Dylan (Jack Griffo) asks Alexa to go to the Winter Formal with him, she says “no” because she fears he only asked her out of sympathy. She eventually accepts his offer, only to find out that he had asked another girl after her. This increases her suspicions that he asked her out of sympathy.

Most cancer patients hate being felt sorry for. They just want to be treated normally because it helps them to forget they are sick. This means this part of the show is very accurate.

Alexa’s Energy Levels and Basketball

Although I like Paris Berelc in the role of Alexa, I do think she often had too much energy. Chemotherapy makes you feel ill and very tired, but the only time Alexa ever looks tired is after she had been playing basketball for quite a while. Her mum, Lori (Tiffani Thiessen), has to force her to take naps when most cancer patients voluntarily take naps because they are tired. Another inaccuracy that annoyed me was when Alexa’s doctor told her that she couldn’t do any physical activities or extracurricular activities. Cancer patients are told to know their limits and to take breaks when they need to; they are not told to avoid fun things at all costs.

Alexa misses a shot while on maintenance. Image Credit: Youtube

I was a bit worried about how they would include the cancer in season 2, seeing as Alexa was on maintenance. But they included it very well. They included nerves before checkups, a flashback to when Alexa was diagnosed and, my favourite, Alexa is not amazing at basketball after a year of not training. At the beginning of season 2, Alexa was told that she could try out for the basketball and she thought that because she was told she could play basketball, she would be amazing at it. Much to Alexa’s dismay, her fitness levels are nowhere near the other girls’. I like that they included this, but it is inaccurate as most cancer patients know that even though they are on maintenance, they are not completely back to normal.

There are a few inaccuracies in this show and at times, they focus on the comedy too much. However, on the whole, it is a great show for demonstrating to kids and teens that the C word is not always scary, that many cancers are now treatable and hopefully encouraging them to treat people with cancer more normally.

Season 1 and 2 of Alexa and Katie are streaming on Netflix now

Featured image via IMDb

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