How a Sex and the City Writer’s Cancer Battle Inspired a Powerful Storyline

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly and the author of Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the original Mickey Mouse Club. She has provided pop culture commentary for CNN, VH1, Fox News Channel, and ABC, and her writing has been featured in Salon, MTV.com, Glamour, Budget Travel, and the Chicago Sun-Times. She also cofounded and continues to run SirensMag.com, an alternative online women’s magazine.

What we loved about Sex and the City was the reliability factor. You could count on the show to touch on the difficulties of living in a big city, balancing career and a social life, and even personal issues difficult to talk about. In one emotional SATS storyline, Samantha was diagnosed with breast cancer. Jennifer Armstrong, author of SEX AND THE CITY AND US, shares the true, behind-the-scenes story of what inspired the character’s heart-wrenching journey.

Sex and the City writer Jenny Bicks had breast cancer.

That could mean only one thing: One of the Sex and the City women was also getting breast cancer.

Sex and the City and Us

Sex and the City and Us

by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

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Michael Patrick King, Bicks’s boss but also one of her best friends, walked into the office one day and told her, “We’re writing about your cancer.” She’d had cancer for about a year, and everyone at the show knew. But this took revelation to a whole new level.

“What?” she said.

But she knew resistance was pointless in the face of King’s determination. And he was right. It was a good idea. So in the next breath she added, “Ugh, all right.”

Bicks was reluctant, but she respected King’s instinct to make the most of a good story. It was a chance to switch the conversation about breast cancer from pink-ribbon platitudes to stories more grounded in reality: the hot flashes, the good and bad wigs, the postmastectomy breast implants, the sexual side effects. We all knew about the brave bald women going through chemo, but we rarely talked about the moment when your hair falls out midcoitus with your much-younger boyfriend.

Samantha went through the disease much differently from Bicks. Samantha whipped her wig off in front of hundreds of people as she gave an inspirational speech. Bicks had only wished she could do such a thing.

Actress Kim Cattrall was just as game for cancer as she had been for the comic sex scenes she’d elevated to an art.

Once again, Sex and the City had allowed Bicks to write her life into comedy, and to make Samantha the brave, ballsy cancer fighter that Bicks hoped she could be. By writing about it with her friends—her fellow Sex and the City writers—Bicks shared her burden with those closest to her in a way few people experience. They could all talk about it without getting mired in the pain. They could support her without constantly asking, “What can I do to help?” Instead of putting on a brave face at work and pretending nothing was wrong, she could let her coworkers protect and take care of her.

The story line made for some of the show’s most poignant moments of friendship among the four main characters, while still allowing it to maintain its acerbic bite. Take, for instance, how Samantha reveals her diagnosis, which happens to coincide with Miranda’s wedding to Steve: First, she methodically tells Carrie in a cab on the way to the ceremony, saying she’s afraid she’ll blurt out, “I have cancer,” during the festivities. She then does, in fact, blurt it out to Charlotte during the reception. Finally, Miranda insists the other three tell her why they’re so glum. Samantha apologizes for ruining Miranda’s “special day,” and Charlotte tells Miranda to go back to her people—her family and Steve’s. “You are my people,” Miranda tearfully insists.

If there was a good way to have cancer, this was it. Bicks even began to hear from others diagnosed with cancer that seeing Samantha deal with it had made a difference to them. She got to go to the Emmys in a wig. She didn’t triumphantly toss it at the crowd, but it still represented one of the least-sucky ways she could think of to go through cancer.

Better still: Like Samantha, she survived.

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Have you been recently diagnosed with breast cancer? Here are 21 questions you should ask your doctor.

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Excerpted from Sex and the City and Us by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Copyright © 2018 by Jennifer Armstrong. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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