Alexa Mendoza has cancer. But she doesn't want anyone to know that.
“Instead of seeing me, everybody is going to see cancer,” the 14-year-old says a few days before starting high school, as tufts of hair begin falling when she combs her hands through her hair. "Everybody is going to know me as the sick girl. And I am so much more than that."
"Hey, they’ll figure it out, OK?” Mendoza’s best friend, Katie Cooper, responds sympathetically, and then teases, “You'll do something crazy and really dumb and they'll all get to see exactly who you are."
Moments later, the two friends shave one fat strip of hair, right down the middle of their heads.
It’s a pivotal scene in "Alexa & Katie,” a show that, true to its genre, captures teens grappling with typical high school dramas while Alexa also contends with cancer.
Creator Heather Wordham (“Hannah Montana”) intended to make a show about friendship. But when she saw a news segment about how a teen shaved her hair to support her cancer-stricken best friend, she reflected on her own experience with her mother and sister, who both battled cancer, and was inspired to focus on a character diagnosed with leukemia.
Films and TV shows with cancer as a major element in the story have proliferated in recent years. “The Fault in Our Stars” followed the love story of terminally ill cancer patients. ABC Family’s “Chasing Life” drama, which was canceled in 2015, portrayed a young woman’s life as she battled the illness. More recently, the CW’s “Life Sentence” explores life after cancer.
“Alexa & Katie,” which launches Friday on Netflix, follows a different script, illuminating the unexpected humor patients and loved ones stumble across as they fight the illness daily.
Alexa (Paris Berelc), who most likely just finished the more intense phase of her treatment, is an energetic and feisty teen. She is eager to start her first day of high school, get back on the basketball court and plot her revenge for longtime rival, Gwenny Thompson (Kerri Medders). Katie (Isabel May) is the perfect sidekick, cheering up Alexa in vulnerable moments with her pure, quirky awkwardness.
“Yes, she's dealing with cancer and yes, it’s talked about a ton because she's living it daily,” says Tiffani Thiessen, who plays Alexa’s mom, Lori, in the show (and came of age in Hollywood on “Saved by the Bell” and “Beverly Hills, 90210”). “But they're also talking about what are they going to wear to high school for the first day and boys and how she’s going to piss [her mom] off.”
Wordham knows there are risks in making a comedy about a teen with cancer.
That’s why she had the crew film the same scenes multiple times in different tones, some more serious and some lighter, so they had choices when they edited the show. Wordham also interviewed social workers, physicians and patients at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and asked a test audience about the types of moments they would like portrayed in the show.
The younger the participants, the less interested they were in seeing more realistic or “scary” elements of cancer, Wordham says.
“The balance we always had to find was how real and dark do we go?” she says. “Do we risk losing an audience that there hasn’t been a show about cancer for?”
Wordham adds that it was important for the lead actresses to never plead for pity in their performances. In her audition, Berelc exuded strength — a sense of anger and vulnerability that Wordham believed was necessary for Alexa. And May, who plays Katie, shined with charm and humor.
Berelc admits she sees a lot of similarities between herself and Alexa.
“If I see if somebody's sad, I'm not going to ask them what's wrong. I'm going to be like, ‘Hey let’s go do something.’” says Berelc, who has also had to learn how to comfort loved ones struggling with the illness, including her gymnastics coach. With conviction in her voice, she declares, “When you go through chemo I'm going to hold your hand while you do it.”
Berelc said she hopes people walk away from the show with a positive outlook and an appreciation for the people who support you in difficult times.
May adds that she thinks it’s important to make clear that the show is not making light of cancer. Rather, the show depicts a cancer patient doing all of the wacky things teens do. “Your sense of humor doesn’t suddenly dry up overnight,” she says.
Experts who work with teen cancer patients say “Alexa & Katie” allows people to connect to a serious issue in a more lighthearted way.
“When you’re working with children there's not a lot out there they can relate to while this is happening to them,” says Carrie Breitwieser, a social worker who was consulted throughout the show. “It’ll be good for other people too, who aren’t experiencing [the illness] to learn about it and have their eyes opened in an entertaining space.”
As difficult as it may be to go through the illness, patients may appreciate seeing some of the social issues they face on screen, said Laura Bava, a pediatric psychologist at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Diseases. Teens report feeling stressed about losing their hair, which makes the internal illness visible on the exterior for the first time, and frustration about being overprotected by their parents.
“They want to be engaged and addressed for who they are and not for the illness,” she says.
That’s definitely one of Alexa’s chief concerns in the show. As her mom begins to let her off the hook for “groundable’ offenses and reaches her limit of tears per week, Alexa takes the opportunity to get a little rebellious. She TP’s a home, vandalizes a sign (though leaves it with a heartwarming message, “Alexa + K8tie 4ever” ) and pranks the nurses. Katie follows cautiously but always willingly.
Katie Hawley, a cancer patient who was consulted for the show and makes an appearance in one episode, says she related to the crazy moments Alexa and Katie experience as she was reading the script. She adds that the show has “guts” for portraying comedy in cancer in the right way.
Hawley had an “Alexa & Katie” moment herself when, after being upset over her hair loss, her best friend took a bowl to her head and snipped away.
“She showed up to school one day and I was like, "What did you do?!" Hawley says. "You look like a little chicken, but I love it!"
Coincidently, her best friend’s name is also Alexa.