What the F@#- is Cancer

By Jessie Losch


Allison Gryphon is a novelist and filmmaker.  She also sports the edgy haircut common to young actresses on the Oscar circuit [think Anne Hathaway & Charlize Theron] and, as in Allison’s case, recent cancer survivors.  When Allison was diagnosed with Stage IIIA breast cancer 2 years ago, she launched a full-scale attack on the disease, researching nutrition, Eastern and Western-based treatments, exercise, clothing, makeup, and all of the miriad physical and emotional facets that are affected in fighting cancer.  She also decided to make a movie: the movie that she wished had been available to help her understand the complicated, exhausting, challenging fight ahead.  The result, What the F@#- is Cancer and Why Does Everybody Have it? (not yet released), became a collaboration of artists, writers, cancer fighters and their friends, families, and doctors.  Allison also created The Why? Foundation to support people going through the fight.


photographed by David Hebble

I met Allison a few weeks after I’d moved to Los Angeles, and, by the time I sat down across from her at dinner, I’d decided that I needed to be her friend.  She’s sitcom-worthy, best friend material; you could easily imagine meeting her for a latte and giggling about Johnny Depp while a hipster in plaid and skinny jeans played Dylan covers in the background [full disclosure; except for the hipster, that was actually true].  Allison is open, honest, snort-out-your-latte funny.  You could be Phoebe and Rachel, Samantha and Carrie, any two girlfriends out for a drink. And then you ask casually why her thumbs are covered in band-aids and remember that her body is still recovering from the radiation and chemo that only recently finished.  While anyone would be expected to rest and take time for themselves after the physical and emotional ordeal of fighting cancer, Allison apparently doesn’t have the word “rest” in her vocabulary. She’s determined to give to others what she wished had been available to her through the process.  She’s also always willing to share what she went through, to make cancer a less formidable enemy.


photographed by Isaac Matthew White

How important was it to feel sexy or pretty? How well does the media portray cancer? How do you feel about seeing pink ribbons everywhere? You are featured in a tattoo magazine? All these answers and more in this exclusive interview with Allison Gryphon. 


Jessie: What was missing when you were diagnosed and going through treatment, and how are you trying to fill that gap for others now?

Allison: That’s a big question. What I found to be missing was a straight-up resource that showed cancer fighters and their friends, family and co-workers what it means to go through cancer on the ground level. When I was diagnosed, as much as I appreciated the research and walks and awareness, which is all very important, what I wanted was an understanding of the day-to-day. I wanted to know what I was facing, how I could prepare for it and how the people in my life could prepare for it.  I looked for a movie, a book and a website. Nothing quite delivered what I needed so I picked up a camera, pulled out my laptop and sent out a call for help to Hollywood. The result is the recently completed documentary feature, What the F@#- is Cancer and Why Does Everybody Have It?, an online cancer resource center called The Why? Foundation and an easy-to-read guide book that’s still in the works.


Jessie: Let’s talk Mars and Venus here. Breast cancer seems like staunchly female domain, with pink ribbons decorating everything from jewelry to yogurt. What do you think have been some of the consequences of this? 

Allison: I think it’s very important to understand what that pink ribbon really stands for. Don’t just wear awareness; be aware. Know what it means to have breast cancer, to fight it, to check your breasts, to live a healthy life. And know that this doesn’t just hit women, men get breast cancer too. We’ve got a lot of work to do. All of us.


Jessie: Was it important to you to feel pretty or sexy while you we’re going through treatment? 

Allison: Absolutely. There was no way I was hiding what I was going through and I really didn’t want to. I had one falling, natural, little breast and one giant breast being expanded for surgery, high on my chest, during my 4 ½ months of chemo. I live in LA. I work in Burbank. It was summer and it was hot. I wasn’t about to put a wig, or anything, on my head. So at almost 6 ft tall, with a mismatched chest and no hair, I felt there was only one thing to do, own it and go sexy G-I Jane/punk rock. I’ve got to say, it was kind of fun. Eye shadow became a huge deal. Bold lipstick. mini skirts, knee-high boots. Fabulous scarves to throw around my neck so they draped over my breasts, camouflaging my state of flux. Going through it was no joke, but owning it changed me. As crazy as it sounds, cancer brought me to a new level of feeling sexy. It was like a dare that I responded to with, “Hey cancer, you don’t get to take my sexy away. Check this out. How do you like me now?” And you know, I think the look and the attitude made people more comfortable with my cancer because I was comfortable.


Jessie: Is there any portrayal on TV or in movies that you feel “gets it right” when showing what people living with cancer go through?

Allison: Ooh. That’s a rough one. You know, awareness is so important, but Hollywood is Hollywood. I’m here. I’m in it. I get it. Overall, I think we need to do better. That being said, I do have my favorite moments. Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment screaming, “Give my daughter the shot.” Samantha in Sex and the City telling her boyfriend that he couldn’t handle her shaving her head really because she couldn’t handle doing it in front of him. The first episode of the Parenthood when Christina told Adam she’d been diagnosed was spot on and done very tastefully. There is good and bad. Overall we need to kick it up a notch in terms of authenticity.


Jessie: You were featured in Skin & Ink magazine getting a tattoo. That’s not the image that we usually see when we see cancer survivors in magazines.  What made you choose to get the tattoo, and in the spot where you got it? Do you think S&I’s core readers were surprised to see you in the middle of heavily tattooed bikers and pin-ups?

Allison: I don’t know that I chose the tattoo. I think it chose me. I remember when I knew it was coming. It was two days before my mastectomy. A dear and well-inked friend and I were having lunch. Somehow we got on the subject of the meaning behind his sacred tattoos and that was it. It was as if it that moment opened a door to let out the tattoo that was already growing inside of me, just waiting for the right moment to come out. It was over a year before I actually go the tattoo, but that was the moment I became aware of it. It was peaceful and profound and simple. I remember that realization so clearly. It was like, oh yeah, I’m getting a tattoo… on my breast… to wrap itself around the brilliant mark made by my doctors to get the cancer out and make me healthy again.


photographed by Lauren Miyake

As far as the magazine, Wow! I was thrilled that Skin & Ink featured the story of my tattoo, both for breast cancer awareness and for writing about the spiritual side of getting a tattoo. At the end of the day that’s what it’s all about, right? What that mark does for you on the inside. Cancer hits all of us in some way. I hope that more main stream magazines take S&I’s lead in not being afraid to talk about it. And getting 4 pages among all off S&I’s sexy women was pretty cool. 

To learn more about THE WHY? FOUNDATION and the upcoming film, What The F@#_ is Cancer and Why Does Everybody Have It?, visit www.thewhyfoundation.org.