The divergent paths carved by one disease, in life and on film
Crazy Sexy Cancer is almost a comedy, which is pretty good for a documentary about a thirtysomething woman with a rare cancer. The fact that it exists at all is a little mind-boggling: Young adults with cancer are so widely ignored that being swept under the rug would make them more prominent. The icing is that it's about an irrepressible woman named Kristin Carr a young actress turned "health junkie" who refuses to accept that she's sick and gets away with it.
I know Kris Carr because she and her colleagues at Red House Pictures sought out my family in 2004. They did this because we run a foundation with two missions: research and treatment of sarcomas, which are the kind of rare cancer Kris has, and the well-being of young adult and adolescent cancer patients. They also did it because our foundation is called the Kristen Ann Carr Sarcoma Fund.
Kristen Carr, my daughter, died of retroperitoneal liposarcoma in January 1993. In February 2003, Kris Carr was diagnosed with epithelioid hemangioendothelioma. The tumors are cousins among the 50-odd sarcomas, which are about half of all types of cancers but add up to only 1% of all cases of cancer. Kristen and Kris are unrelated except in spirit and cultural background: two beautiful New York City women who imagine themselves fearless and invincible until the roof comes down.
Cancer is not an ennobling disease. A lot of cancer patients like a lot of people with gingivitis and the common cold are selfish or angry or just plain jerks. What can you expect from humans who are poked, prodded, poisoned, cut open, denuded of all body hair, and brought within a few heartbeats of death if they survive at all? There is no adequate description of people who confront the terror, despair, and sheer pain of cancer and still manage to think past their own problems.
Kris Carr doesn't just portray one of those in Crazy Sexy Cancer. She shows how it's done. That means we get to see her in painful moments of tearful self-pity, scared out of her mind. It means listening to some of the loopiest practitioners of "complementary" medicine I've ever seen, including the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida, where we are allowed to witness how to use blades of wheatgrass as an anal suppository. This is not as menacing as Dr. Robert Young's explanation that all disease is caused by excess acidity in our bodies. (See www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/DSH/coral2.html for an explanation of why it not only isn't but couldn't be.)
Kris believes intensely in this stuff, but she eventually figures out that what she eats isn't who she is any more than what's hanging around in her liver and lungs is. One of the last scenes in the film shows her at the sink with wheatgrass, no blender in sight, but she's laughing. At the Hippocrates Institute, she piles a plate with raw food and says straight into the camera, "This is a plate full of chi. It is also a plate full of gas."
From the beginning, she acknowledges how scared she is and turns that fear into a kind of protective irony. She is outwardly perfectly healthy extremely energetic and radiantly beautiful, in fact which is both confusing and infuriating. Her medical oncologist, Dr. George Demetri (an eminent sarcoma researcher/clinician), assigns her the toughest of all cancer regimens: watchful waiting, which means doing nothing until the disease makes the first move. If you want a cancer treatment that will really piss you off, this is it.
Kris shares the stages with three other patients. They also survive, but the real point is their shared wit, I think, the skewed perspective that being a young person with a life-threatening disease gave each of them. I haven't laughed like this since the last time I sat down with one of the young patients and survivors I know.
Near the end, Dr. Demitri tells Kris that, for the time being, she's free to think of her indolent cancer as nothing but a wart. Kris, who hates the idea that she's incurable, doesn't know what to think or feel, let alone say.
"Are you happy?" asks her father. "Because he's pretty happy. And I want you to be happy, if you can be, just for a minute."
It's a funny place to feel envious, but having stood in the same kind of room and received other news, there I was. I'm pretty sure I'll feel the same way at the festival screening, but that's OK. I'll see one of the Kris Carrs move off to live with all the hope and love the world has to offer. It makes me want to laugh with joy. And cry for the same damned reason. When you find a film that can give you both of those in an hour and a half, your watching it twice probably isn't half enough.
Crazy Sexy Cancer
World PremiereSunday, March 11, noon, Dobie
Wednesday, March 14, 11:30am, Alamo South Lamar
Saturday, March 17, 4:30pm, Alamo South Lamar