The Unexpected Bittersweet Surprise of “Life Sentence”

How a TV show about a girl recovering from cancer teaches many life lessons.

Posted Aug 09, 2018

Life Sentence, a young adult drama featuring Lucy Hale documents the journey of a millennial given a second chance at life. Having fought cancer for eight grueling years, she is unexpectedly cured by a trial treatment. In fact, she is the only survivor of the trial. Given six months to live prior to starting her trial, she decides she no longer wants to live out her remaining days in a hospital bed and instead goes to Paris to pursue her final life dream of falling in love. 

As such, when she returns wedded with a life expectancy of only a few months, only to be miraculously cured, her entire reality turns on its head. The handsome stranger who only wanted to make her happy for her remaining months on earth turns out to have his own needs and longings—and now they are in it for the long haul together. Her family, who had maintained a veneer of happiness and perfection, comes crumbling down as her parents file for divorce and her brother’s addiction to prescription drugs becomes apparent. It turns out her happily ever after isn’t quite so.

While told in the style of a romantic drama that only television producers can weave, the story is deeply touching on many levels. While most reviewers have focused on the lack of reality of the storyline and telling, the emotionality which the show evokes is very real. As one who has often shied away from the “cancer storyline” in television and film that we know all too well, this one was far more approachable. The depictions of globs of hair falling out due to chemo, the patient retching over a toilet bowl, those are the images film media loves to show us, drawing out the agony of such storylines. In doing so, the beautiful moments are lost. As viewers, we are so traumatized by what we are seeing that we lose perspective of the nuances of the story. Cancer is horrendous and we don’t need to be beat over the head with the details.

In Life Sentence, we are instead asked to think about the aftermath of cancer, a story which is rarely heard. Too often the story ends in death and grieving. In this one, we see what happens next. As cancer treatments continue to improve with more patients beating the odds, the story of Life Sentence is coming closer to what the reality of many individuals' lives may be like.

Years ago when conducting therapy with a young man, he came and told me a story not too different from that of Life Sentence. He shared that for over a decade his family was dealing with the cancer his father was fighting. He discussed enjoying spending more time with his girlfriend’s family because they were happier. And then he uttered the line I remember so clearly as if it were yesterday. He said that he realized his was always “the sad family.” My heart ached for him and his reality. Growing up in a household of depression, fear, and misery for a decade is certain to leave its marks on any developing young child. The constant fear of losing a parent. Dealing with mom’s depression. How can anyone not only live this way, but thrive? 

Life Sentence tackles many of these issues and more. What happens when you don’t finish your high school degree because you were in the hospital the whole time? What about going to college? In one poignant segment of the show, the protagonist’s sister pleads with her to live a big, full life. Otherwise, all of their sacrifices were for naught. The family did not crumble so she could hold a menial job at a coffee shop with a snarky boss. They did not hold things together so she could be in a shaky marriage causing discord. 

Above all, Life Sentence asks us consider what exactly it is that we are doing with our lives. What if we all knew our expiration dates? How would we chose to live our lives? Would we play it safe, or dream as big as possible knowing it was useless to worry about failure when life is so short anyway? Life Sentence also shows us the inherent messiness of day-to-day life and how easy it is to get caught up in. It is easy to live in a fantasy world for a short period of time, but soon reality catches up and there are bills to be paid and family functions to endure. 

It is unfortunate that the show was cancelled after one season. But it was a thought-provoking one nonetheless. Behind the backdrop of an otherwise cliché millennial drama was far more depth than initially met the eye. Hopefully more shows like this are picked up by networks and continued in the future. As the world of medicine continues to evolve and mental health issues are brought to life, stories of suffering that slowly and unsteadily turn into ones of triumph need to be heard. And, as viewers, we need to be challenged with the question: what do we do with our life sentences here on earth?