When I watched the first of the final eight Breaking Bad episodes on AMC last night, I had something in common with Walter White. We’re both bald.
Well, I guess we have two things in common, as I learned in the middle of the show (spoiler alert): It turns out Walt is going through chemotherapy too. I feel as if Walt and I have been through a lot together in the past few months, as he’s become somewhat of my cancer hero—or antihero. (Though I’m no Gale. W.W. is far from a shining star in my eyes. And perhaps Gale is the most obvious example of the dangers of loving Walter White.)
As everyone turned against him as the show progressed—from his wife to his former business partner to viewers of the show—I still felt somewhat of a cancer kinship with him. He was beginning to lose me in season five—but as we see so often with Jesse Pinkman or with Skyler—just when I thought I might be done with him, Walt pulled me back in.
In February, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and I’ve been undergoing chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center since April. In June, I started watching Breaking Bad, after hearing hype about the show for years. The show’s premise—a high-school teacher who makes crystal meth after a fatal lung cancer diagnosis—seemed timely.
Just as everyone predicted, I became addicted. In fact, when I watched all of season four at Lincoln Center during a recent Breaking Bad marathon, a fellow fan confessed he would sometimes skip work or lie to his friends about having plans when he wanted to stay home and watch multiple episodes.
As I feverishly caught up on the show in time for the new episodes, Walt became a cancer companion of sorts. There are the physical effects of the chemotherapy—the nightstand full of medications, the red urine, the PET scans—but it’s the psychological effects on Walt to which I could relate.
Anyone who has ever received a bill for cancer treatment has probably thought that they need to make more money—fast. Even with insurance—something that I may be losing at the end of the month—the bills for a biopsy, medications, scans and chemotherapy add up.
Obviously, making and selling drugs is no joke. But if you could do something to make enough money—even if it were illegal—to not worry about medical bills, would you?
I might. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s as if, from time to time, the snakes from the medical caduceus symbol slither from their post and curl up in bed with me and hiss into my ear, reminding me of the expense.
Fortunately, for society’s sake, I have no illegal talents. I’m also a terrible liar and a goodie-goodie at heart, so I’m not cut out for a life of crime.
The thing that resonates with me the most about Walter White, however, is his anger, always bubbling near the surface, and his need for control, which drives him as much as—if not more than—his love for his family.
Walt’s anger is always present, constantly bubbling near the surface. After his diagnosis, he tells off his boss at the car wash and beats up a teenager for making fun of Walter Jr.’s cerebral palsy. Most of us can relate to wanting to do these things—and a cancer diagnosis is just the thing to push you to actually do it. You often want to have a tempter tantrum over how this isn’t fair. The smallest things can set you off, because you find yourself thinking, “This happened and I have cancer.”
Sometimes, I find myself walking around daring the world to piss me off—just for the release of pent-up anger. While I haven’t blown up a drug den or even thrown a pizza on a roof, I did find myself hanging on to a cab’s door handle and screaming at a startled driver when he refused to take me to Brooklyn after my biopsy surgery in Manhattan. It was during the change in shifts for cab drivers, when they decide whether you’re on their way home or not. After being turned down by one cab, I vowed to not let it happen again. “I just had surgery and you won’t take me to Brooklyn!” I screamed, pounding on his window. If I had been close enough to the open part of the window, I would have tried to force my upper body into the cab, new stitches along my neck or not.
Most of my anger is reserved for insurance companies and bureaucratic entities that are out of the grasp of my wrath. It make me feel helpless and as if I don’t have control—which brings me back to Walt.
But pride and a need for control are what really drives Walter, more than anything, and that’s when he started to lose my sympathy. Had he accepted the offer of his former business partners, he could have avoided this meth mess completely. We finally learned this season that he’s always been haunted by his decision to sell his share of a company now worth billions for $5,000, and that’s when his reluctance to quit the meth business comes into focus.
Yet I relate to his need for control in the face of cancer. To me, cancer has felt like a betrayal of the body. Your own cells are going renegade. When you have so little control over your own body, then what do you have?
You want to be tough. I’ve assured people over and over again that I’m fine, that this is no big deal. You put on your badass black hat or your wig and you become Heisenberg, your alter ego who is always strong and in control and unfazed. Who doesn’t want to assert, “I am the danger,” and “I am the one who knocks” when you feel as if you have very little control?
As Walt sits in a hospital gown and socks for his PET scan—a test that determines the state of your cancer, whether the treatment is working or whether you’re in remission—he’s still struggling for control. As a fellow patient spouts clichés and grapples with his diagnosis aloud, Walt goes off—again there’s the anger—and asserts to this poor stranger that he’s in control.
During one of several Breaking Bad discussions this past weekend, someone observed Walt has become the cancer. He’s the danger, but as the body count piles up and the consequences of his actions become increasingly dire, he still doesn’t have the control that he wants.
In spite of all of Walt’s transgressions, I still wanted him to be happy. I often find myself defending unlikeable characters. So I was disappointed when Hank found that copy of Leaves of Grass, after it seems that poor Walt had only a month of what he finally wanted. And now his cancer is back—as is Heisenberg.
I am now bald. I have a black hat, though it’s more Holly Hobbie than Heisenberg. Am I the danger? Inadvertently. I almost set my kitchen on fire while baking cookies and two of my lab partners in high school science classes almost set our stations on fire. (I wasn’t responsible, but I still feel as if I was an accomplice.)
Before the premiere of the new episode last night, my boyfriend shaved my head. A lot of people shave their heads early in the chemo process, but my hair was so thick that the thinning wasn’t noticeable until this week. Within the course of a week and half, my hair suddenly looked really thin. It was time. And what better time than before the return of Walter White?
I didn’t cry, though I’ve done my share of it over the past several months. But I’ve never been one of those people who cry when they get their hair cut. It will grow back—though in this case it will take longer.
Right now, I’m waiting for the results of my most recent PET scan. If everything is on track, my last chemotherapy appointment will be September 27—two days before Breaking Bad comes to an end. Walter White’s story and my cancer journey will end together. I know better than to expect a happy ending for Walt, though I hope for one for the end of my own story.