Essays

What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Having Cancer

In movies, cancer is an extraordinary condition that enables extraordinary events. But in real-life, cancer is not extraordinary. It's part of life.

While I sat in the theater waiting for Guardians of the Galaxy to start, I knew I had cancer.

Officially, I was waiting for the diagnosis from the biopsy, which would be along about a week later. I still had a shred of hope the doctor might say, “It’s just a virus, take these pills.” He had done everything he could to disabuse me of that hope, but doctors aren’t infallible. So what if he said he had never seen these symptoms when it wasn’t cancer?

While clutching that shred of hope, I mostly wondered what kind of cancer I might have. How serious would it be? What stage would it be? Would it kill me? Would I be dead in a year? In months? In weeks? Would Guardians of the Galaxy on its opening weekend be one of the last movies I would ever see?

Having been diagnosed with cancer, Bryan Cranston can now start a meth lab.

Having been diagnosed with cancer, Bryan Cranston can now start a meth lab.

When you do a keyword search for “cancer” on the Internet Movie Database, you get 1500 entries. Breaking Bad is at the top of the list. Bryan Cranston’s cancer gives him license to “break bad”. He starts a meth lab to support his family. The series creator, Vince Gilligan, summarizes Breaking Bad as a story about a mild-mannered teacher who becomes the equivalent of Scarface.

Because cancer. Cancer lets you become an over-the-top Al Pacino character.

For a lot of movies, that’s the takeaway. Well, you’re screwed, so now you have license to do something extraordinary. What do you have to lose?

Cancer finds a place in the dizzying sprawl of The Fountain.

Cancer finds a place in the dizzying sprawl of The Fountain.

Ryan Reynolds signs up for a secret super-soldier experiment in Deadpool. Kevin Costner takes an assassination contract against his better judgment in 3 Days to Kill. Clint Eastwood transcends his racism in an act of self-sacrifice in Gran Torino. Mickey Rourke comes clean about his career as a hitman in Ashby. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman go to the North Pole, climb the Pyramids, and ride motorcyles in Bucket List. Betty Davis tries to carpe diem with Humphrey Bogart in Dark Victory. Gene Hackman, who lies about having cancer, uses it as an excuse to reconcile with his family in The Royal Tenenbaums. In The Omen, we find out why a satanist priest had a change of heart and died trying to stop the Antichrist. “He was riddled with cancer,” explains David Warner. Cancer is an extraordinary condition that enables extraordinary events.

My carpe diem was pretty laidback. Not the stuff of movies.

But in real-life, cancer is not extraordinary. Two out of every five people in the US will be diagnosed with cancer. It will kill one of them. When I was diagnosed, I didn’t do anything particularly extraordinary. I pondered my mortality and hunkered down to endure the ordeal of my treatment. No secret supersoldier programs, no assassination contracts, no bucket lists, no long overdue reconciliations, no changes of heart about the Antichrist. My carpe diem was pretty laidback. Not the stuff of movies.

Creed's creed: "You fight, I'll fight."

Creed’s creed: “You fight, I’ll fight.”

In these movies, cancer is just why a character does the stuff that makes the movie happen. Cancer as catalyst. They’re mostly contingent on cancer being terminal. It’s the equivalent of a cough in a period piece. In a story set in Victorian England, when someone coughs, she’ll be dead from consumption before it’s all over. For me, movies stand out when cancer isn’t terminal. In Creed, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is diagnosed with cancer. He wants to give up. But his young protege, who’s training for a difficult fight, won’t have it. “If I fight, you fight,” Michael B. Jordan insists. Stallone agrees with a fist bump. Cue the montage comparing chemotherapy to training for a brutally difficult boxing match. Creed isn’t about winning. It’s about prevailing.

But most of these movies aren’t actually about cancer. When you think of movies actually about cancer, you think of 50/50, The Fault in Our Stars, Dying Young, Brian’s Song, stuff like that. There are hundreds of these movies, most of which I’ve never heard of and many of which I didn’t even know had cancer in them. Movies like Terms of Endearment, where cancer shows up to play everyone out with a heartfelt message. Tumor ex machina. That’s ultimately about cancer, right?

Love Story, which came out in 1970, didn’t even admit it was about cancer until the 1978 sequel confirmed that, yep, Ali McGraw’s unspecified terminal illness was leukemia. I remembered in Beaches that either Barbara Hershey or Bette Midler dies from cancer. So when I sat down to watch it again (this article was painstakingly researched), I was mortified to discover I had misremembered. Barbara Hershey dies from heart disease.

Oops, Beaches is about heart disease, not cancer. But does it even matter?

Oops, Beaches is about heart disease, not cancer. But does it even matter?

Does it matter? Cancer is a convenient villain in a story about loss, but it’s not the only villain. Announcing a death in advance is dramatic, whether it’s cancer or heart disease. You can only get so much mileage out of a car wreck. Knock, knock, your husband/wife/child has just died in a car wreck. Griefgriefgrief. The griefgriefgrief is more interesting when the bereaved and the bereavee have some time to grapple with it, in the same way that a ticking time bomb is more dramatically interesting than an explosion. That’s where cancer comes in. It announces itself so we can grapple with it.

Movies supposedly about cancer are actually about mortality. They almost always come down to “well, I’m going to die.”

So it seems to me these movies supposedly about cancer are actually about mortality. They almost always come down to “well, I’m going to die.” Unlike cancer specifically, this is something five out of every five people will experience.

To be fair, some movies about cancer stand out for their specificity.

Although Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a bit cloying, it toys skillfully with the uncertainty that affects cancer patients. 50/50 has a lot of information about the mechanics of treatment. In The Fault in Our Stars, I was taken aback at the brief appearance of the mesh mask that holds a head-and-neck cancer patient still for radiation treatment. Those masks look scary, like Medieval torture devices. They don’t read well in movies. Movie language for cancer is usually just a shaved head, an IV drip, or one of those donut-shaped radiation machines. The first time I saw one of those masks was when mine was made. And there it was for a brief glimpse in The Fault in Our Stars. Two years ago, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it.

A Fault in Our Stars offers a glimpse of something you don't normally see.

A Fault in Our Stars offers a glimpse of something you don’t normally see.

As someone who’s holding steady to find out which of the two in five people diagnosed with cancer I’m going to be, my reaction to movies about cancer has changed. They don’t scare or intrigue or even affect me the way they did before my diagnosis. They’re telling me things I know already. They’re dramatically repurposing something personal to me, in a way to try to make people understand. But I already understand, thanks. I’m no longer the target audience. In fact, I’m not even the subject matter, because cancer is just one of many things that has happened to me.

The movies where cancer is meaningful to me are the movies where it happens in the midst of everything else. Where it has a role in the story, but it’s not the actual story, and not just a catalyst to make the main character do something movie-worthy. Creed, for example. Magnolia. The Grey. A Serious Man. The dizzying sprawl of The Fountain. Cancer in those movies does two things. It takes me out of the movie. “Rats,” I think, “I have cancer.” Then it takes me deeper into the movie. Because cancer isn’t the sum of the experience, and it’s not even a turning point. It’s an important detail.

The movies where cancer is meaningful to me are the movies where it happens in the midst of everything else.

Not knowing what's going to happen in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

Not knowing what’s going to happen in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

If you’ll bear with me, let me tell you my favorite example of cancer in a movie. It’s an odd choice.

It’s a movie I saw while recovering from my treatment, waiting for six months to elapse. At six months, I was scheduled for a full set of MRI and CAT scans to determine whether the chemo and radiation was effective. If everything was still clean at that point, I’d crossed an important hurdle to being one of the two in five people diagnosed who survives. I had come a long way, and now I was holding a different sized shred of hope. And there I was watching a silly horror movie.

I watch a lot of them. I’ve been fascinated by horror movies since I was too young to watch horror movies. 90% of them are dreadful. It’s all about that quest for the other 10%. Among that 10% is a zombie movie called Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead. The main characters are in a car that’s run out of fuel. A horde of snarling ravenous zombies surround the car. They can’t drive away. They can’t get out. They’re trapped. No one is coming to rescue them.

“Is this the worst fucking nightmare of your life or what?” asks one of the characters.

“No fucking way, mate,” says another. It’s an Australian movie.

“What the fuck could be worser than this?”

 

The zombie apocalypse in Wyrmwood: "This is fucking nothing."

The zombie apocalypse in Wyrmwood: “This is fucking nothing.”

He pauses. He takes a drink from a bottle of whiskey while the zombies snarl and peer into the car’s windows. “About fifteen years ago,” he says, “the doctor told me my son had brain cancer. He was only seven years old. He died in my arms. That was way worse than this. This is fucking nothing.”

Where did that come from? Why did this gleefully gory, energetic horror movie want to tell me that about this character? Why did it want to minimize its zombie apocalypse? Why did it want to include underneath its silly horror a reminder about the real enormity of cancer? It’s not that guys like me might only live to fifty instead of eighty. The enormity of cancer is that it happens to children.

So six months before seeing Wyrmwood, there I am in the theatre with some close friends, including a ten-year-old boy who means a lot to me. The swollen lump in my throat might still be a virus, but I’m struggling to accept that clearly it’s not.

Taken out of Guardians of the Galaxy, and then taken deeper.

Taken out of Guardians of the Galaxy, and then taken deeper.

Guardians of the Galaxy starts. A little boy sits forlorn in a hospital hallway. He goes in to see his mother. She is bald and gaunt. An IV drip hangs by her bed. An EKG chirps. Movie language for cancer. She says a tearful farewell to her son and then dies. He is devastated. It takes me out of the movie.

“Rats,” I think, “I probably have cancer.”

Then it takes me deeper into the movie. The little boy is kidnapped by a UFO and he grows up and finds a magic rock and a talking raccoon and a cool green chick.

Cancer is part of many stories, but it’s never the sum total of any story.

In the support group I was part of before the treatment made it too difficult for me to talk, there was a young Hispanic guy with tattoos, a shaved head, and leukemia. He talked about his family. About his three children. He didn’t know if he was going to live. He didn’t know how to prepare his youngest boy. Coming out of the support group and seeing those three kids climb into their father’s arms was almost more than I could take. A staggering concurrence of joy and sorrow.

I think of those kids when I watch Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie I adore. That opening moment takes me out of the movie. Then it takes me deeper into the movie, because Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t about cancer. It’s about many things and that’s one of them. An important thing, to be sure, but not the only thing and not even the main thing. It develops characters instead of defines them. Cancer is a part of many stories, but it’s never the sum total of any story. My life and its stories are about many things. Cancer happens to be one of them.