A Look at the Way Cystic Fibrosis Has Been Depicted in Popular Media

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by Brad Dell |

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It’s interesting to see characters with cystic fibrosis in popular media — even if the disease isn’t always portrayed realistically.

Check out these films, shows, and books where cystic fibrosis appears, and how the disease is depicted in each one:

Foreverland | Film | 2011

In this Canadian film, cynical 21-year-old cystic fibrosis patient, Will (Max Thieriot), has given up on trying to find a job or relationship because of his obsession with the idea that many with CF don’t live to their 30s. He goes on a road trip to Mexico and rediscovers his thirst for life in the process. The film uses salt as a thematic symbol — a clear connection to cystic fibrosis patients’ salty skin. It also shines a light on the daily life of a CFer: treatments, the feeling of “drowning” in mucus, uncontrollable coughing fits, and an overprotective mom who worries about the sound of his “soupy cough.” Sound familiar?

Red Band Society | TV Show | 2014

In this now-cancelled show, patients with various medical conditions have adventures in the ward of a fancy L.A. hospital. A rebellious character named Dash Hosney (Bradley Brian, Jr.) has cystic fibrosis and is in need of a lung transplant. Despite being in end-stage disease, his first scene features him in a hazy closet sharing a marijuana joint with a friend without ever coughing. He also runs and skateboards easily without need for oxygen. Not all end-stage CF presents itself in the same way, but his high energy is a head scratcher at times. At other points, the disease does show itself, such as when he coughs up blood during an argument.

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Bates Motel | TV Show | 2013–2017

A reimagining of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, Psycho, Bates Motel features a character with cystic fibrosis named Emma Decody. She’s 17 years old, on the waiting list for a lung transplant, and on supplemental oxygen. The show, taking place in present day, casually mentions her life expectancy is 27 years old, while the actual reported average life expectancy is 37. Despite her end-stage disease, Emma climbs up a mountain without much trouble then easily sprints through a forest without a single cough at the end of episode two. While hiding from the men chasing them, through the mountain, protagonist Norman whispers to Emma, “Don’t even breathe.” Then he remembers her cystic fibrosis: “Sorry.”

Ghosts | Graphic Novel | 2016

This story is about middle-schooler Catrina’s relationship with her little sister Maya, who has cystic fibrosis. The girls and their parents move to Northern California’s coast in hopes that the salty sea air will help Maya’s lungs. Maya has advanced disease and so the topic of death is thematically explored — Maya has an obsession with ghosts. Basic information about cystic fibrosis symptoms are nailed, as is the effect of salty ocean air on lungs and the common feelings of resentment the disease can produce.

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No One Dies in the Garden of Syn | Book | 2016

Synthis (Syn) Wade is a teenager with cystic fibrosis who is pushed into a pond that portals her to a new world where illness and death do not exist. Most of the book has Syn cured of her disease, but the basics of cystic fibrosis are still covered for background purposes. In the normal world, she has morning treatment routines, coughs because of thick mucus, and has very little energy. This is the first book in an ongoing trilogy, so there is room for the disease to be explored more in-depth.

Teeth | Book | 2013

A boy named Rudy is forced to move with his family to a remote island in an attempt to save his 5-year-old brother Dylan, who has cystic fibrosis. The fish at the island have magical healing properties if eaten, but Dylan must eat them for the rest of his life if he is to remain cured (or maybe just until gene editing is possible?). Rudy enters a strange, violent friendship that forces him to choose between his happiness and his brother. The book describes common CF symptoms as well as its potential for lethality, though much of the story takes place with Dylan being cured of these symptoms because of the magical fish. It’s fantasy, if you haven’t guessed.

MORE: 10 little-known weird facts about cystic fibrosis

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