Thursday’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy, titled “The Winner Takes It All,” holds a special place in the heart of co-executive producer Elisabeth R. Finch. Like Catherine Fox (Debbie Allen), Finch is a person who lives with cancer. We asked the veteran drama writer about penning the stand-alone episode, and why she decided to pair Catherine’s surgery with the sad loss of Thatcher Grey (Jeff Perry).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why is this story close to home for you?
ELISABETH R. FINCH: Krista Vernoff [the showrunner of Grey’s Anatomy] heard me talking one day in the [writers’] room about how much I hated the words “battle,” “fight,” “win,” “lose” when it comes to cancer. How hurtful it is, how destructive it can be to someone with cancer. Because what is winning? What is losing? Does that mean someone who died of cancer just didn’t fight hard enough? She asked me if I’d consider writing a story similar to my own, of someone living with cancer. Someone who has an illness they’re managing but still has a full life, a job and family and friends. Most stories about cancer, the person is either dead or cured. There is no in-between. But I live in the in-between. And there are more people like me out there with chronic illnesses who are desperate to see themselves represented on television. I am lucky as hell that Krista encouraged this story, and that a show like Grey’s can follow Catherine as she moves forward, managing her cancer.
What was the situation with your cancer? Are you still living with it?
I have a small tumor at the base of my spine they cannot shrink or remove. I receive treatment and frequent scans to make sure it doesn’t grow. I am a person living with cancer, and that may never change. I am strong. And capable. And medical advances happen all the time, so I can’t predict the future. But I have made peace with where I am at present, which is a person with a disablity, a person living with cancer.
One aside: This couldn’t have been the first time the game of Operation has been featured in a Grey’s episode, is it?
I believe it is! And now that I’m saying that, how is it the first time?? I am 99.99999999999 percent sure we haven’t. That said, I am happy to be proven wrong by any of our amazing fans.
Was the plan always to package Catherine’s surgery with Thatcher’s death? What did you want to make sure to convey in those scenes between Thatcher and Meredith [Ellen Pompeo]?
Krista realized that we had two stories in a similar time frame that both dealt with cancer and parent-child relationships, and it just made sense to put that together. I was excited to look at these two very different families side by side, one that’s incredibly connected and one that’s historically not, but there’s still a lot of love on both sides. I was also really interested in presenting two very different realities of cancer. Both Catherine and Thatcher followed doctors’ orders, took their medicine. One lived. One died. When people die from cancer, too often the obituary says the person “lost their battle,” but Thatcher didn’t lose. Catherine didn’t win. Thatcher died. Catherine survived. There’s no winning or losing, just living and dying. And Thatcher didn’t perpetuate the belief that a “good” cancer patient “fights until the bitter end.” His treatment failed, and without apology or shame, he chose to die in his own home, as comfortably as possible. There is no “right” way to do cancer, but too often the narrative shows cancer patients dying in a hospital bed, determined to “not give up.” I was interested in showing a different narrative. And, thankfully, the scheduling gods smiled on us and the brilliant Jeff Perry was available to shoot this episode, which, as a longtime fan of the show before I started working here, was a dream come true.
Why did you make this a stand-alone episode? Because there was so much story to cover?
I’m a playwright, so I personally love writing episodes that are focused on one or two stories, so that I can dig in as deep as possible. Meredith and Thatcher have so much history, so much ground to cover. And we knew Catherine’s surgery was going to be huge. We wanted to really take our time with both storylines.
Grey’s Anatomy airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.