Are Movies About Cancer Patients Exploiting or Enlightening?

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Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the U.S., behind only heart disease, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 598,000 people succumbed to the illness in 2016 alone. As cancer affects so many people, it only makes sense that the illness has been the subject of many Hollywood films.

But how accurate are these films when it comes to the portrayals of cancer patients and survivors? According to some survivors, Hollywood could do a much better job in its depictions of cancer patients and the ramifications of the disease, especially where survival rates are concerned. Many films in which a major character faces a cancer diagnosis end on a sad note, with that character ultimately dying from the disease, despite advancements in cancer treatment in recent years.

Cancer-centered films, such as 50/50 and The Fault in Our Stars, also tend to center around the stories of young people, rather than older cancer survivors. This may be an attempt to pull on audience heartstrings, as young people facing a potentially fatal disease makes for dramatic storytelling. But it does a disservice to the millions of adult cancer survivors across the globe. In fact, cancer most commonly affects those 55 and older.

Cancer by the Numbers

High cancer mortality rates are not just a U.S. problem; in the U.K., different types of cancers accounted for 24.8 percent of deaths in females and 30 percent of deaths among males in 2015, according to Public Health England. The most common types of cancers in the government’s report include lung cancer, colorectal cancer, and leukemia. In the US, in 2017 it was predicted that 600,000 people of 1.6 million total cancer patients died from their condition.

Among women in both the U.S. and U.K., breast cancer is one of the most common and aggressive strains. Breast cancer is typically first identified via abnormal lumps, and it can affect women of all ages. While men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer, it is relatively uncommon in males.

Despite the disease’s prevalence, however, films on the subject of breast cancer are few and far between — Hollywood tends to feature stories of more rare forms of cancer, such as brain cancer and lymphomas. Notable exceptions include Pieces of April, featuring Katie Holmes as a young woman dealing with her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis, and 2015’s Miss You Already, a buddy story starring Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette.

Cultivating Cancer Awareness Through Film and TV

Cancer diagnoses have also made a splash on the small screen. The award-winning television series Breaking Bad, for example, follows the story of chemistry teacher Walter White, who turns to methamphetamine production in order to pay for treatment after he is diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. The drama-packed series helped shed light on the way families struggle with a cancer diagnosis. In Walter White’s case, he receives support from his family from the beginning, and they ultimately persuade him to seek treatment.

Sometimes, however, cancer awareness on the small screen comes from unexpected sources. In a 2018 episode of the late-night sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live, a joke about mesothelioma garnered criticism for its insensitivity, yet it also garnered press for the cancer strain, and with it, awareness of the disease. Mesothelioma is an aggressive strain of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, and between 2,500 to 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are reported every year in the U.S. alone.

Charitable organizations may also look to Hollywood and TV to help raise awareness. When 50/50 was released on Blu-ray and DVD in 2012, Teenage Cancer Trust and HMV organized an event that challenged viewers to shave their head for charity. In the film, Adam shaves his head before starting radiation treatment, which can lead to hair loss. Interestingly, Walter White makes the same choice, in a sort of rebellion against his cancer diagnosis.

Mental Health Considerations

As is the case with Walter White and 50/50’s Adam, many individuals who are diagnosed with cancer have difficulty coming to terms with their diagnosis. The mental aspects of the disease can be just as debilitating as the physical symptoms, and these should not be overlooked within on-screen cancer stories. Adam, in fact, seeks counseling to help him through the diagnosis, and his relationship with his therapist proves to be an effective lifeline during his struggle.

The emotional feelings that accompany a cancer diagnosis are myriad and can include fear of death, treatment anxiety, and financial concerns. Depression is also common among cancer patients, with up to 25 percent of patients experiencing depression at levels considered critical.

On screen, cancer patients are often portrayed as depressed, and many seek help to deal with the negative feelings that stem from their diagnosis. Some turn to counselors or friends. In The Fault in Our Stars, Shailene Woodley’s Hazel, who has throat cancer, finds solace in a support group for teens with terminal illnesses, and her experience there also furthers the film’s plot. In the support group, Hazel meets Gus, and they fall in love, ultimately fueling each other’s will to live.

The film industry could do a better job at portraying cancer as a treatable disease that primarily affects older people. Yet movies about cancer patients ultimately succeed in effectively illustrating the feelings and emotions that accompany the disease. Even though some depictions may be misguided, cancer patients and their families are likely to find parallels between their personal experiences and the fictional on-screen characters living with a cancer diagnosis.

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