clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Irreplaceable You’ and the Strange, Sweet, and Crushing Literature of Terminal Cancer Essays

Netflix’s new release treads a path out of a New York Times Modern Love column: A woman with a terminal diagnosis tries to find a new partner for her fiancé

Netflix/Ringer illustration

There aren’t a lot of movies that reveal their own endings quite as speedily as Irreplaceable You, the Valentine’s Day–adjacent heartbreaker released last week on Netflix.

Scarcely a minute into the runtime, a shot of the Manhattan skyline pans down to show the tombstone of main character Abbie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), around whose cancer diagnosis the film revolves. If this sounds like a spoiler, it isn’t really: Irreplaceable You isn’t a movie about dying. It is in part, of course, as well as one about learning to accept one’s own impending demise, but the plot here turns on something more specific. Upon receiving her bleak diagnosis, Abbie sets about finding a new partner for her about-to-be-nearly-widowed fiancé, Sam (Michiel Huisman).

If the movie’s premise sounds a bit like a New York Times Modern Love column, it’s because it closely parallels more than one. Last year, the author Amy Krouse Rosenthal penned a piece titled “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” which posited itself as a sort of dating profile for Rosenthal’s spouse of 26 years. Rosenthal, by then deep in the throes of ovarian cancer, died 10 days after the column was published, and Universal subsequently won a bidding war for the rights to her story. The neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer in 2013, wrote essays and then the memoir When Breath Becomes Air, published posthumously, about his diagnosis and the birth of his first child mere days after a stint Kalanithi spent in the ICU. The writer Nina Riggs was 38 when she was told her breast cancer was incurable; she wrote the memoir The Bright Hour and her own Modern Love column, “When a Couch Is More Than a Couch,” about her search for a sofa for her husband and young sons to use after she was gone. In 2017, The Washington Post decreed The Bright Hourthis year’s ‘When Breath Becomes Air.’” In a Modern Love–ian twist, the Post followed up last month with a story about how Kalanithi and Riggs’s surviving spouses, Lucy Kalanithi and John Duberstein, are now dating.

As a post-diagnosis declaration of intent, Irreplaceable You joins a sweet, sad, and robust body of recent literature. There’s “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word,” Matthew Teague’s essay about his best friend’s support as Teague’s wife, just 34 years old, died of ovarian cancer, or “A Matter of Life and Death,” Marjorie Williams’s disconcertingly serene essay about her ultimately fatal liver cancer. Peter Bach, a physician, wrote “The Day I Started Lying to Ruth” about his decision not to tell his wife of his own medical certainty that her breast cancer would take her life. At the San Francisco Chronicle, Alicia Parlette serialized her treatment for a rare sarcoma. She died five years on, her lungs crowded with tumors and hip shattered by another.

As a genre, it’s a strange one. The pieces tend toward clinical levels of detail: the precise way in which the terrible prognosis arrived, the words the doctors used to try to explain, the sudden assignment of the term “patient.” It is all precisely as crushing as it sounds, with details that cut: Parlette’s cancer discarded years earlier as a harmless blood vessel issue; Teague’s wife’s horribly festering wounds; Williams writing that as her undiagnosed cancer first began to eat away at her body, she was content to believe it was the welcome help of a newly slendering metabolism.

You might read them as explorations of one of life’s immovable parts—the end—or, if something similar has knocked at your door, perhaps for a kind of comfort. There is also, maybe, more than a bit of morbid curiosity at play in the way these stories go viral. Williams wrote about how her doctors sometimes let their professionalism slip after meeting her, switching from questions about staging and past treatments to stumbling inquiries about how she first noticed her disease. “I realize at these times that they are asking as fellow humans, not too much younger than I am,” she wrote, “and their fascination is the same as everyone else’s: Could this happen to me? How would I know? What would that feel like?”

A friend and I used to send each other the bleakest ones we came across, the essays and confessionals most likely to make one or the other of us weep at our respective desks. “I legitimately regretted reading that one,” I wrote as he mired his way through one I’d sent. “I’m reading it now,” he responded, “and I fucking hate you for it.”

Then a serious cancer diagnosis arrived in my family a couple of years ago, with so many of the attendant shadows that darken those essays: the discovery of a lump, the I’m sure it’s nothing, but let’s order another test, the discovery of new things in other places, the waiting and seeing. One night, out with friends at a live podcast taping, I found myself sprinting mid-recording for the bathroom, in tears and gasping at the suddenness and deepness of the hurt brought by a reader’s essay about his uncle’s modest ambitions after a terminal diagnosis. After that, I mostly stopped reading essays about cancer. I lost my taste for the roiling, jagged-edged misery of strangers, and the hopefulness that came only after the white-hot certainty of loss.

Irreplaceable You pitches itself as a love story: It’s no accident that it was released the week of Valentine’s Day, as if it might be something for you and yours to settle in and watch together. (Once, a boyfriend who knew nothing more about the show than that [a] it was some kind of play and [b] I had historically enjoyed plays, got us Valentine’s night tickets to a performance of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which was perhaps several hundred orders of magnitude less uplifting than he intended.) Look at all the things we do for the ones we love, the movie implores: In one scene, Mbatha-Raw’s Abbie stoically interviews girlfriend candidates at a coffee shop, telling one promising woman of a potential encounter with her unaware fiancé, “Let’s set up a date.”

That you can see the hits coming long before they do doesn’t do much to soften the impact. You know that not all the charismatic fellow patients in Abbie’s support group—among them Christopher Walken, Kate McKinnon, and Tami Sagher, and group leader Steve Coogan—are going to make it to the end. You know that Abbie’s grand plans of self-replacement won’t be received well by everyone. And you know, of course, that Abbie isn’t going to pull through.

With its heartbreak all but earmarked, it’s not altogether different from launching into an essay about cancer that includes a note about the author in past tense at the top. Director Stephanie Laing does a nice job of capturing all the hip trappings of 30-ish city living that might make mortality, much less months or years of wasting, nauseating decline, unimaginable: the cool bars and fashionable lofts, the fulfillingly ambitious jobs and glamorous, healthy friends (including here, if unfortunately not in real life, Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry). You can almost feel the movie gawking at the concept of something so outlandishly, impossibly grim: Could this happen to me? How would I know?

Unfortunately, Irreplaceable You doesn’t have a whole lot more to say than that dying when you’d rather be doing other things—getting married or walking along the Brooklyn waterfront or just, well, living—isn’t ideal. While I gave up the stories of suffering strangers, the one thing I really wanted during the dark months cancer gnawed on the edges of my life—before my family’s story vaulted out of this category with a final scan deemed all clear—was to tell every last detail about what had happened to anyone who would listen. But although there is some solace, perhaps, in the tales of others for those who’ve had cancer burst into their own lives, it all feels muffled here, a heartbreak too obviously imagined. There is a time for tears for tears’ sake—and, heck, why not the week of Valentine’s Day?—but this time, with so much real heartbreak elsewhere, just isn’t it.