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Alexa & Katie Strives to Normalize Cancer for Teens

How the Netflix sitcom tries to change the conversation around illness

Megan Vick

The latest entry in Netflix's deep foray into young adult programming doesn't come with the company's reputed darkness, but is important all the same.

Alexa & Katie is a multi-cam sitcom from Hannah Montanascribe Heather Wordham and could easily fit in the Disney Channel lineup, except it's about one scary thing: cancer. Actually, it's more accurate to say that Alex & Katie is about living in spite of having cancer.

The 13-episode first season chronicles Alexa's (Paris Berelc) first months of high school, which she enters while battling cancer and undergoing chemotherapy. She wouldn't survive the trials and tribulations of the moment without her loyal-as-they-come best friend Katie (Isabel May). Determined to make Alexa not feel alone, Katie shaves her head in the first episode once they discover that Alexa's hair is falling out. Together they pick out wigs for their first day of school. Since the series' main objective is to show that Alexa's life isn't over just because of her diagnosis, hijinx, first crushes, broken curfews and many other rites of passage that come with entering young adulthood ensue,

"One of my closest friends had nearly the same experience as Alexa does," May told TV Guide while promoting the show at a Netflix junket in January. "She has lymphoma, so it was interesting being placed in that situation and playing a character who has a friend who [has] nearly the same predicament. I think Paris portrayed that perfectly because people still move on. There's a stigma behind cancer that needs to be addressed and that's what the show is doing."

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This is not to say that the show ignores Alexa's condition. One major heartbreak she faces in the first season is that she isn't allowed to try out for the basketball team because the physical fatigue would prevent her from healing. Slight fevers mean weekend stays in the hospital to ensure Alexa hasn't developed an infection. Cancer is the single barrier the girls must overcome in their friendship, when Katie feels jealous that Alexa's hospital friends know things about her that Katie will never be able to understand. Cancer definitely affects Alexa's life, but the point of Alexa & Katie is to show that the disease doesn't control it.

To make that statement, the show does have to gloss over some of the more graphic elements of having cancer. There's no chemo nausea or G-tubes. Alexa's emotional beats are tracked without the physical detail that might be too much for the series' intended pre-teen audience. That omission actually helps the show break the "sad cancer story" mold and allows Alexa to be empowered on her road to remission. Her defining trait is that she doesn't want to be looked at as the sick girl or pitied for the diagnosis, and it helps to make sure the audience doesn't see her that way either.

The truth is, there are a lot of kids out there with cancer who don't lead The Fault in Our Stars-esque romantic lives. They have a disease that they must fight, but they also have hobbies and want to play sports or be in the school play. They are just like all the other kids you know, just with an extra battle to fight. Alexa & Katie is for them. Yes, it's a show about cancer, but it's also about hope and friendship and living life to your fullest, no matter your circumstances.

Paris Berelc and Isabel May, Alexa and Katie

Nicole Wilder / Netflix

Alexa & Katie is currently streaming on Netflix.

Additional reporting by Liam Mathews