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Specialist commends series' cancer plot

NEW YORK - Nancy, a character in thirtysomething, the ABC chronicle of the lives of ordinary people of a certain age, is encountering one of life's biggest crises: Nancy has cancer. She had found her own empowerment as a successful illustrator of children's books and had reconciled with her self-absorbed husband, Elliot. They were contemplating having another child, so she went for a physical examination.

The physical prompted "a high suspicion that something might be abnormal," said Dr. Maurie Markman, a medical oncologist specializing in ovarian cancer at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center here.

He is a frequent watcher of ABC's series, which airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Tonight's episode, an ABC spokesman says, continues the story of Nancy, and the problems another character, Melissa, is having with her father and her lover.

In earlier episodes that led to Nancy's far greater problem, doctors "initially did a laparoscopy - a small incision in the abdominal cavity," Markman said. They found the abnormal cells that indicated ovarian cancer. She then underwent removal of her uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes.

Nancy was lucky, Markman said, because ovarian cancer has no specific, early symptoms. "Examination won't help in this disease at all," he said.

Even though the disease was discovered at any early stage, Nancy still faces a grueling regimen of chemotherapy. "She certainly needs chemotherapy, and I think they're going to give it to her," Markman said.

"It's usually between five and eight to 10 months of treatment with fairly standard drugs, associated with a fair amount of acute side effects," Markman said.

He said the severity of those side effects vary from patient to patient, but they include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, loss of appetite, hair loss, potential risk of infection, bleeding, anemia and sometimes more serious problems like kidney damage and neurological damage, including numbness and tingling of the feet.

Seventy to 80 percent of ovarian cancer patients are cured with therapy, he said. In the more advanced cases, probably only 20 percent to 30 percent survive. And in very advanced cases, probably 10 percent survive.

"Most of the time, you survive," Markman said. "She doesn't appreciate that at this point. "What she's focusing on is that she has got a 20 to 30 percent chance of dying, and I think that's very accurate. That's not television."

Elliot, played by Tim Busfield, also is creating a true-to-life, if not particularly likeable, character. "He's sort of dealing with this by being incredibly busy and almost not willing to hear what she's saying," Markman said.

"That's exactly how I would expect a loved one to respond. With time and with thinking about it, with discussions, you will find out what your loved one needs. Not by ignoring the complaints and then being reassuring," he said.

Marshall Herskovitz, executive producer and co-creator with Edward Zwick of thirtysomething, said the show's writers have consulted with cancer specialists about the disease.

"It was always our intention to illustrate what we've seen to be the truth of life with cancer, which is that life goes on," Herskovitz said.

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