When the Cancer Journey Meets Hollywood

June 18, 2014

It is not uncommon to turn on your TV to a new show or movie featuring a character facing a cancer diagnosis. Think of the shows The Big C and Chasing Life or the movies 50/50The Bucket List, and the now widely famous The Fault in Our Stars. These shows and movies depict cancer diagnoses in many different ways, but what makes some respectable representations of the cancer journey and others “cancersploitation”?

Ilana Horn, author of the article “The Difference Between Cancersploitation and Art—According to a Cancer Survivor,” is no stranger to cancer herself. Horn was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, shortly after losing her stepbrother to cancer. She now has her own blog where she writes about topics such as caregiving, doctor-patient communication, and end-of-life issues.

In this article recently published in Time, Horn details the value of cancer-focused cinema and where it can go wrong. She notes that often, TV shows and film will feature a character with cancer simply in order to advance the plot in some way. For example, a character’s diagnosis may change a widely-held perception of an unfavorable character, or the diagnosis may just be there to add drama to already existing story lines about relationships, careers or other parts of the story.

However, Horn praises films like 50/50 and The Fault in Our Stars. She notes that although Hollywood depictions of cancer diagnoses will never be completely accurate, these films treat cancer as a multi-layer issue that affects every part of the characters’ lives. By watching films like this, Horn feels that individuals affected by a cancer diagnosis, as well as their caregivers and loved ones, can find a sense of healing by reflecting on their own journeys.

While reading Horn’s article, I found her perspective to be both unique and important. It’s easy to criticize Hollywood films for their often glorified depictions of cancer, but I agree with Horn in that some films do depict some important aspects of living with cancer. As Horn points out, these TV shows and films may not be completely realistic, but when they really do delve deep into the changes a diagnosis can bring, they prove that cancer is playing a greater role than just a storytelling device.

However, I also believe that everyone’s cancer journey is different. Because of that, people may relate to different shows or movies featuring a character with cancer in different ways, and some may be more or less meaningful depending on the viewer. Often, seeing a film or TV depiction allows people to reflect on their own experiences, proving that the most important story will always be their own.

If you are interested in sharing your experiences with cancer, participate in CSC’s Cancer Experience Registry, the first cancer registry focusing on the emotional and social impacts of a cancer diagnosis.