We all know her. The NYPD's Anita Van Buren has led the detective squad at Manhattan’s 27th Precinct on “Law and Order” since 1993. Through 20 seasons she has broken through many barriers, including sexism. Like the other cops in her squad, she knows that her life is on the line every day, and her very survival can be at stake. This season, the last one, the show provided another of the “twists” that has made it a fan favorite. This season our tough, strong, ready for anything Lieutenant Van Buren took on cancer.
The show’s writers have never been afraid of tackling controversy. They took on an ugly cancer that's often ignored by mainstream and entertainment media. Van Buren was diagnosed with Stage-II cervical cancer caused by HPV - the human papillomavirus. It was sexually transmitted and contracted from her former husband, who had been cheating. She went through chemotherapy, lost her hair and used a wig. She ate less because of the chemo treatments. After first turning it down, this by-the-book officer of the law started using medical marijuana. When her boss, the Chief of Detectives, learned she was using pot, he stopped by, gave her mints and helped her get to a discreet source that he learned about in his own fight with testicular cancer.
She continued to go through cancer's ups and downs while continuing her extremely stressful job. She worried about her survival all the way to the final episode. While managing a crisis situation with a potential mass murderer, the lieutenant is on the phone applying for a personal loan to cover medical bills. She had two scans to determine the state of her cancer, with the cameras showing extreme close-ups of a face filled with both fear and resolve. The squad planned a surprise party to help with her bills, and she said she wanted her privacy respected, and then gave in when her fiancé pointed out that her friends need to do this for themselves as their own way of coping with her illness.
In the final minutes of the final episode she got the doctor’s call she’s been waiting for – to find out if the cancer has spread. The scene is one of the best and most memorable that has ever run on television. We’re kept in suspense because her back is to us and we can’t see her face. She listened to the doctor on the phone and said goodbye. Her shoulders heaved. We’re still in suspense. And then she slowly looked up and whispers “Thank you…thank you” and we rejoiced with her. She then got her game face on and joined her colleagues at the party in her honor.
The show may be over, but Lt. Van Buren’s life isn't. She took on cancer and now she's a survivor. It wasn’t the piece of cake that’s often shown as “cancer" nor the soppy melodrama version either. It was a real woman with all of the elements that make up a real woman’s life. Millions of people will follow this cancer story as the show goes into reruns around the globe. Women worldwide will learn that a sexually transmitted disease can lead to cancer, even if your partner is someone you’ve known for years and/or someone you’ve married. Millions will see the incredible struggle and grace that it takes to fight this horrific disease, and that survival is possible.
The incredible skills of the actor who plays Van Buren, S. Epatha Merkerson, made the story real. Many of the scenes in the last show were very intimate and played alone, and her grace in conveying what a cancer patient goes through with an understated but very clear sense of strength is a true accomplishment.
In real life, Merkerson is an outspoken advocate for lung cancer patients and was on the Board of Directors of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. An Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG Award winner, she's won critical acclaim for her work in theater, television and film. While the character she played pretended to save lives, the real woman may actually save some real lives because she took on the challenge of making cervical cancer real for millions of viewers.
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