Cancer Goes To the Movies

Cancer portrayed in an overly dramatic way in the movies

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) If you’re familiar with Debra Winger, you may know she’s died from cancer at least a couple times – in her movies Terms of Endearment and Shadowlands. While cancer can make for heart-wrenching drama, such bleak portrayals of the disease are far from the truth.

Cancer isn’t always a gasping, bosom-grasping, oh-my-God, she’s-gonna-die! scenario. That is, cancer is not an automatic death sentence, despite what Hollywood would have you believe.

In fact, every year millions of people in the U.S. are diagnosed and successfully treated with cancer and go on with their lives. But there’s nothing very dramatic in that reality.

"Don’t believe everything you see…in a movie."

Dr Luciano De Fiore from Sapienza University of Rome and colleagues studied the role cancer plays in the cinema.

"Nowadays cinema is confronting the most important issues for oncological disease, which were mostly absent in the earlier days of cinema," says Dr. De Fiore.

"Cancer is no easy matter to portray, and seeing it in a movie gives the audience a chance to give voice to their emotions. This is useful for the sharing of cancer care, from personal or familiar problems to issues of collective relevance."

But things for cancer patients are not always as dreary as movie plots make out, the researchers note.

"Very often the ill person doesn't get over the disease and his death is somehow useful to the plot's outcome. This pattern is so strongly standardized that it persists in spite of real progress of treatments," Dr. De Fiore said in a press release.

For the study, researchers looked at cancer’s role in 82 movies:

  • 40 women characters had cancer as did 35 men.
  • 21 of the films didn’t mention the type of cancer.
  • Rarer cancers are stars in the movies – leukemia, lymphoma and brain tumors.
  • Symptoms were part of the action in 72 percent of the movies; diagnostic tests, 65 percent.
  • Chemotherapy was the treatment most frequently mentioned, then pain relief
  • Death was scene (pun intended) 46 times, or in 63 percent of the movies.

Prof Christoph Zielinski, president of the Central European Cooperative Oncology Group, summed up the plot of most of these movies.

"When considering cancer, the more 'dramatic' forms are being portrayed, as fate of both patients and their surroundings can evolve around them. In reality, it is much more living with cancer, being diagnosed with it, being treated and, finally, surviving it which dominates human lives," Prof Zielinski said.

So while cinema verite focuses more on illness than recovery, the movies might become an important educational theater.

“The movies could be very helpful in raising awareness among the public, patients and physicians.

According to Dr. De Fiore, “by watching movies on cancer, oncologists could become more conscious of problems they are already facing in the therapeutic setting: cancer and sexuality, the relationship between the patient and the medical staff, side-effects of therapies. And some films simply make us reflect upon the meaning of life and death," he said.

Findings from this study are to be reported at ESMO 2012 Congress of the European Society for Medical Oncology in Vienna, Austria.

Before publication in a peer-reviewed journal, all research is considered preliminary.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 28, 2012
Last Updated:
November 8, 2012