Netflix shows about Chronic Illness.
Chronic illnesses aren’t usually the most popular subjects to be incorporated into movie and TV show storylines.
Usually, portrayals are limited to terminal illnesses, stories of triumph where the sick person makes a full recovery or medical dramas where the focus is on the doctors and their quest to find a diagnosis.
Rarely do we see media portrayals that show the everyday challenges of more common conditions and illnesses like fibromyalgia or Crohn’s disease.
That makes it pretty remarkable when a movie or TV show includes a chronic illness.
These portrayals can be wonderfully validating and educational if they “get it right,” but they can also perpetuate harmful stereotypes and misinformation if they get it wrong.
Check out our picks below, and let us know if you agree or disagree in the comments below.
- Alexa and Katie
- Brain on Fire
- The Fundamentals of Caring
- Kiss and Cry
- Degrassi: Next Class
- Gaga: Five Foot Two
- My Beautiful Broken Brain
- Be Here Now
- The Big Sick
- American Housewife
- Haters Back Off
- This Is Us
Alexa and Katie
Alexa and Katie is an American teen series following the lives of Alexa, who has been diagnosed with cancer, and her best friend Katie. Season one premiered on Netflix in March 2018 and the show has been renewed for a second season.
Alexa hides her illness for fear of being treated differently, something which I think all of us can relate to on some level. The show follows her struggle to live a ‘normal’ life whilst also taking care of her health. This is something else I think is very relatable to everyone with a chronic illness.
The show is a clichéd American teen show, but the underlying message is fantastic, and the positivity shown by Alexa is commendable. There are some hard-hitting moments when your heart breaks to watch Alexa miss out on life because of her illness; however, the show is mostly humorous, so it doesn’t dig too deep into the more difficult side of chronic illness.
Brain on Fire
Brain on Fire is based on the true story of Susannah Cahalan, who released her memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness in 2012.
The film follows Susannah, an up and coming journalist working in her dream job, living her ‘best life’ in New York.
Seemingly from nowhere, Susannah develops an array of symptoms such as voices in her head, seizure, and hypersensitivity to sound. The film follows her story as she desperately tries to find a cause for her symptoms.
The struggle to have doctors take her seriously, let alone obtain an accurate diagnosis, is heartbreakingly relatable for so many of us with chronic illness.
Susannah is misdiagnosed, told her symptoms are all in her head, and is written off by almost every medical professional she meets. Her symptoms deteriorate, and her family and boyfriend keep desperately fighting for answers.
This film was difficult to watch because it is a reminder that medicine still has a long way to go and too many medical professionals still fail to investigate symptoms when there is no obvious cause for them. It was incredibly emotional to watch Susannah be told it was ‘all in her head’ and become a shell of her former happy, healthy self.
The film also tackles issues such as how difficult chronic illness can be for loved ones and how the support of loved ones can shine a light even in total despair. It also looks at how employers deal with chronic illness, although Susannah was fortunate to have an understanding employer who supported her.
The film highlights the importance of sharing your story, no matter what that story may be. It is also a reminder that even after the diagnosis of a chronic illness, you are still you, just a stronger version of you.
Unrest is a documentary following PhD student Jennifer Brea as she battles Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E). Jennifer started documenting her life to cope with her diagnosis and the debilitating symptoms of her illness.
Jennifer fell very ill shortly after getting married and the documentary accurately depicts the struggle of a newly married couple coming to terms with a life-altering diagnosis and all that comes with that.
It is extremely relatable to those of us with a chronic illness and tackles the grief, loss and heart break that come with losing your health. It is a stark reminder that life, and health, are extremely fragile and should not be taken for granted.
The documentary discusses the harm of misdiagnosis and the controversial opinion of many medical professionals that M.E/CFS is psychological rather than physical.
Jennifer campaigns to bring more awareness to the illness and in doing so speaks with people from all over the globe who are also battling the condition. She does this via Skype and video interviews as she is bed bound for a large portion of time during filming.
The documentary does not shy away from sensitive topics such as suicidal thoughts, whether to have children, and the loss of her quality of life and the future she had hoped for. It also tackles the issue of females being less likely to be believed by medical professionals or not taken seriously due to the hysteria phenomenon. It accurately reflects chronic fatigue and the impact chronic illness has on a marriage or relationship.
The documentary also shows the terrifying attitude some countries have towards illnesses that cannot be seen, such as M.E. It features the story of Karina, a young woman removed from her home by authorities in Denmark and effectively held captive for over three years in a psychiatric facility. It also features people living all over the world, which makes it extremely relatable to everyone, regardless of where you live.
The documentary is honest, emotional and inspiring, featuring people from all walks of life as they fight to shine a light on an illness seemingly forgotten by medicine.
The Fundamentals of Caring
This American comedy-drama is based on a novel written by Jonathon Evision and premiered on Netflix in June 2016. It features Paul Rudd as a retired writer who is struggling with personal tragedy.
He becomes a caregiver and his first job is providing care to a teenage boy who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. The film follows their journey as a friendship blossoms and they both encourage each other to start living life again, rather than watching it pass them by.
The teen boy is played by Craig Roberts, who brings a fantastic element of truly British humour into the mix. The film highlights issues such as feeling entitled to good health, wanting to live a normal life, and the feelings of fear and grief chronic illness can evoke.
The film reminds us all to not let disability define who you are and never give up on your dreams. It is laugh-out-loud funny, motivational, hard-hitting at times and wonderfully uplifting at others.
Kiss and Cry
This film is based on the true story of Carley Allison, a 17-year-old figure skater and singer, who is diagnosed with an extremely rare type of Sarcoma.
It shows how life can change dramatically in a short space of time. According to her own family, who supported the making of the film, it depicts what cancer actually looks like, and not some Hollywood version of cancer.
The style of the film, where at points the actress playing Carley speaks directly to the camera, makes it very personal. It follows Carley’s journey as she comes to terms with her diagnosis and finds the positive even in such a horrific situation.
The story also shows how her family, friends and boyfriend supported her, and tackles delicate issues such as friends who struggle to cope and therefore stop contact, pushing people away and wondering why a partner chooses to stay when you are very ill.
It also shows Carley trying to protect others from the reality of her illness and faking a smile at times. Furthermore, it examines how relationships with health care professionals can be difficult and reminds us that behind every doctor and nurse is a human being with their own lives, issues and emotions.
Ultimately, Carley’s motto was to ‘always smile’ and the message within the film is beautiful, heartfelt, and very relatable. Carley leaves her mark on the world and reminds us all to do the same, even when life doesn’t go how you planned. The film is very real, down-to-earth and inspiring.
Degrassi: Next Class
This Canadian teen drama made its debut on Netflix in January 2016 and is comprised of four seasons. The show tackles issues such as abuse, drug use, sex, friendship, relationships, homophobia, racism, mental illness, sexuality, and religion.
It follows the life of character Grace as she comes to terms with a diagnosis of Cystic Fibrosis. Grace hides her diagnosis from her friends in the first season because she doesn’t want pity or to see them struggle to deal with it.
In the second episode of season one we see one friend find out the truth and the show does an excellent job of accurately representing how others can struggle to cope with a serious diagnosis.
It shows her friend Zoe refusing to believe the illness will eventually kill Grace; Zoe looks for crazy ‘cures’ rather than simply listening to Grace and being there for her. I found this very relatable, and I am sure many people with a chronic illness will too. It is often other people who struggle to come to terms with our diagnosis more than us, and this can hinder our own acceptance of it and the grieving process which is part of all chronic illnesses.
The show does not shy away from the issues of death, life expectancy with the disease, and everything that comes with that. It shows Grace as she moves between acceptance, grief, anger, and hopelessness before finally realising she deserves to live a full life, no matter how short.
It also tackles the issue of transplants and the various therapies she must do, as well as how she deals with wearing medical equipment at school once her disease progresses.
The show also follows the character Maya as she struggles with her mental health and suicidal thoughts. It shows how depression and anxiety impact every aspect of her life, the challenges of reaching out for help, the stereotypes and stigma still attached to mental health and ultimately how she tackles those.
Trigger warnings: There are scenes of death and suicide attempts, so please bear this in mind as it may be triggering for some. There are also scenes of a severe car accident, which again may be triggering for some.
Gaga: Five Foot Two
In this 2017 documentary, we are introduced to the world of Lady Gaga.
The documentary follows Gaga as she makes her fifth album, Joanne, and the lead up to her half-time performance at the 2017 Super Bowl. It is not solely focused on her battle with Fibromyalgia, but it does feature numerous times in the documentary.
This documentary highlights that someone can appear totally okay and be functioning as normal, but still be in an incredible amount of pain. Hopefully this documentary is educational for people who do not suffer with chronic pain, as Gaga uses her platform to effectively raise awareness of a still very misunderstood health condition.
My Beautiful Broken Brain
My Beautiful Broken Brain shares the story of Lotje Sodderland, a 34-year-old woman living in London who suffered a Haemorrhagic Stroke as a result of Congenital Vascular Malformation.
The documentary follows her journey as she rebuilds her life after her acquired brain injury. As part of her brain injury, she loses her ability to speak, read, and write, among other things, and must learn all those skills again. We witness her journey from the point of her stroke, through inpatient rehabilitation and beyond.
The documentary focuses on her trials and triumphs, the unconditional support of her family and friends, and her fierce determination to recover. It highlights that everything can change in a moment, and accurately chronicles the challenges which surround invisible conditions.
It is a raw, emotional, honest account of the every day frustrations of living with a complex health condition. The documentary doesn’t shy away from the realities of Lotje’s life post-stroke and she bravely shares the heartbreaking sense of loss anyone with a chronic illness can relate to.
The documentary was aired on Netflix in March 2016 and shows Lotje going through experimental treatment and the post-stroke complications which follow. It is the story of a woman who must rediscover her identity and learn to live with her ‘new’ brain.
It is at times heartbreaking, but it is ultimately an inspiring and hope filled journey which is very relatable to anyone who has had to overcome health challenges and rediscover who they are after a chronic illness diagnosis.
Atypical is an American coming-of-age comedy-drama which premiered on Netflix in August 2017. The show focuses on the life of Sam, an 18-year-old with autism, and explores topics such as relationships, sex, friendship and the challenges Sam experiences as he attempts to get a girlfriend and navigate high school.
Be Here Now
This documentary follows actor Andy Whitfield on his journey to live life to the full with Non-Hodgkin‘s Lymphoma. It made its Netflix debut in 2015 and is a story of unwavering love between Andy, his wife, and their children as they fight to beat his cancer.
The documentary looks at both western medicine and alternative medicine and covers both in some depth. It reminds us that treatment is a personal choice and we must advocate for ourselves. It also explores the psychological impact of cancer and the allows a glimpse into some of the most personal, private moments of their grief.
Andy and his wife are beautiful to watch; their dynamic is remarkable. The documentary highlights the strength of their love, the resilience of their marriage, and their never-ending hope of a happy ending. We see them cling to each other through the storms life brings and navigate each challenge, setback, and triumph in a wholly united way.
It was an emotional watch; you cannot help but be pulled into their world and cry with them. What was truly beautiful about this documentary was how they turned the worst situation imaginable, losing a loved one, into a positive, learning journey. They remind viewers to count every blessing in life, no matter how small, and to always be present in every moment.
The Big Sick
Comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon based their film “The Big Sick” after their own lives: The story of how Gordon (Zoe Kazan) suddenly became sick with a mysterious illness, plunging Nanjiani into the world of chronic illness along with her parents.
Gordon was ultimately diagnosed with adult-onset Still’s disease, a rare autoimmune disease, and the film highlights all the challenging aspects of chronic illness from the point of view of the sick person, their parents and their significant other.
In a world where portrayals of illness are most often limited to soapy medical dramas or tear-jerkers that end in the sick character’s death, it’s refreshing to see a film portray every day and even mundane aspects of illness such as making small talk in the hospital cafeteria, arguing about the best treatment plan, what you do after you leave your loved one at the hospital and go home and the pressure that’s often put on the sick person to “get over” the emotional trauma of illness.
The film’s frank and realistic portrayal of illness rang true for many people who have chronic health challenges (and their caregivers).
“black-ish” isn’t necessarily known for incorporating illness into its storylines — which made it all the more surprising and commendable when a December episode focused on Anthony Anderson’s character, Dre, being diagnosed with diabetes. Anderson himself has type 2 diabetes, and it’s clear from the episode’s authentic tone that he had a hand in the portrayal.
Dre goes through all the stages of the grieving process after his diagnosis: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
He tries to say that he’s not experiencing symptoms, explores “natural cures,” balks at testing his blood sugar, finally realizing that his illness doesn’t have to be the only thing that defines him.
Also commendable is the fact that the episode is factually accurate and actually encourages the audience to educate themselves about diabetes (something few shows seem to take seriously when portraying illnesses).
An October episode of the ABC comedy “American Housewife” sparked controversy with its mention of Lyme disease. The episode involved one character, Katie (Katy Mixon) saying she had Lyme disease in order to get out of volunteering with the PTA.
In reality, Katie doesn’t have Lyme disease, and some viewers felt it was offensive for Lyme disease to be played for laughs. Kate McLaughlin pointed out that people with Lyme disease are often accused of faking or “doing it for attention,” and felt episodes like this contribute to the stereotype that Lyme disease isn’t a “real” disease and when people say they have it, they might be faking (and that other diseases would never have been used to stand in for a faked diagnosis).
“The message that they are sending out is dangerous and contributes to the misunderstanding and normalizing the mistreatment of people with Lyme disease,” McLaughlin said.
However, other viewers interpreted the episode differently. They maintained that Katie’s efforts to get out of the PTA weren’t meant to be taken seriously and that it wasn’t offensive for Lyme disease to be used as the disease she didn’t actually have.
Haters Back Off
The Netflix series “Haters Back Off” was canceled last month, but its two-season run from 2016-2017 featured a character who claimed to have “undiagnosedfibromyalgia,” and many viewers were unhappy with the way the show seemed to suggest fibromyalgia wasn’t a real illness.
Miranda’s mom, Bethany (Angela Kinsey), frequently tells people she has undiagnosed fibromyalgia, wears wrist braces (despite the fact that fibromyalgia generally includes all-over body pain), talks about having fibromyalgia so she doesn’t have to lift heavy boxes at work and gets sympathy from the man she’s dating due to her condition. Ultimately, though, Bethany reveals that she has a kidney condition, which is not played for laughs.
Some viewers felt fibromyalgia was used as a punchline, used to represent a “fake” illness that Bethany probably doesn’t have. The problem is that fibromyalgia is very real, and people who have it tend to be viewed as fakers and hypochondriacs, just like Bethany is portrayed to be.
“The stigma that invisible illnesses aren’t real is such a huge issue people such as myself face. This show has inadvertently solidified what a lot of ignorant people feel to be true, that we are just faking it,” wrote Bridget Parker on her blog Beautifully Broken — Chronically Strong.
Not everyone minded the way fibromyalgia was portrayed. “I thought it was funny. It really does just play off people who complain to everyone about made up problems. They make a point to say undiagnosed each time to stress the absurdity,” said Reddit user peanutgallerie in a thread about the show.
This Is Us
On one hand, the show handled Kevin’s addiction well — it’s clear he is dealing with unresolved emotional issues, is repeating his father’s behavior (he was addicted to alcohol) and that he is abusing opioids in order to deal with his trauma. Viewers are encouraged to sympathize with him rather than see him as “just an addict.”
The controversy, then, is in the fact that opioids are so often misunderstood, especially this year with the opioid crisis intensifying and getting more media attention.
While the show is under no obligation to show both sides of the issue, some people with chronic pain were concerned that the show perpetuates the idea that opioid use leads to addiction, and is yet another media portrayal of opioids that leaves out those who use their medication responsibly.