One of the most precious things about art is its appeal to real emotions, beliefs, or experiences. Many creative endeavors are made with the intent to be relatable or inspiring, so they tend to touch on sensitive and personal subjects. One such issue that Hollywood has found success in covering is cancer.

Without a doubt, cancer is a horrific part of the human experience and relatable to many people. Whether it is happening to a viewer or to someone close to them, art depicting its effects can be impactful. For this reason, it’s also a box office hit when made into a plot point.

But if the reason humans feel a connection to art is how it reflects reality, an issue like cancer should be treated with care. While these plot points may sell tickets, movies depicting cancer may sometimes cater to audiences at the expense of representing patients and their experiences accurately. From an ethical perspective, is that worth the payout?

Hollywood’s Relationship to Cancer

Movies about cancer are nothing new. There are many movies about this topic. One of the most significant examples from recent years is The Fault in Our Stars, a critically acclaimed movie (based on a novel by John Green) that features a romance between two cancer patients. And of course, who could forget A Walk To Remember, another romance that depicts the effects of cancer? Love stories between individuals with cancer are common in Hollywood. Tragic love stories sell, and this is a truth that predates movies.

But these movies primarily focus on certain types of cancers. Considering that there are over 100 types of cancer, Hollywood ends up excluding large portions of society with the narrow plotlines seen in these movies. For instance, HPV cancers have been on the rise for a few years, but the movie industry seems to ignore this type of cancer. While such conditions are sometimes touched upon in documentaries (such as the critically acclaimed documentary Someone You Love) the well for HPV cancer and many others is pretty dry. 

Misrepresentation of Cancer Patient Experiences

In a great article on Vice, a number of patients commented on the portrayal of cancer in Hollywood. Notably, most of the interviewees felt that the struggle was too dramatized and that they were made to seem weaker or more helpless than they actually are. This was explained best by 27-year-old cancer patient named Yomii Moise:

They love to have us on TV crying, weak, and vulnerable but that's not always the case. When I walked into my job and told them I had to go on medical leave due to complications with my breast cancer, they expected a crippled, broken down soul but all they got from me were smiles and joy and they couldn't understand why I wasn't as bothered as they were.

Movies like 50/50 have received praise for their portrayal of a cancer patient’s experience. What makes this film different than others is that it was written by a cancer survivor. In speaking with CNN, patient Thomas Brokaw said that cancer movies “tend to miss the realism of the day-to-day negative impact of having this disease or the impact the treatments have on the total body."

Since there are over 100 types of cancer, crafting narratives around only a few may give the public a skewed perspective of what patients go through and how to address the topic outside of a theater. Misinformation pushed by Hollywood can affect cancer patients directly because it affects how people treat them.

Art, Reality, and Exploitation

Movies are an ideal vehicle for education through storytelling. Misrepresenting stories and serious issues could be written off as artistic license — but at whose expense? This brings into question the importance of art as a vehicle for truth versus profits.

For instance, chemotherapy is not the only cancer treatment, but it easily gets the most air time. By playing into their own stereotypes, Hollywood may be missing a market. Think about the reported effect of cannabinoid drugs on cancer patients. With the popularity of cannabis and the push for legalization, it has a potential foothold in storytelling.

What’s more, Hollywood has a tendency to over-romanticize the cancer experience and relationships for the shock value when a partner passes away. Rarely do stories involving cancer follow another plotline — but when they do, it’s been proven to be incredibly successful and relatable.

Take AMC’s Breaking Bad, for instance. Walter White faces losing everything when he’s unable to pay for his cancer treatments, which is a common experience for many cancer patients in the U.S. The fear of losing everything because of a broken healthcare system is what drives this character’s story — not his cancer and any kind of forced love story. Because of that, it was incredibly engaging and real. While Walter White’s experiences are certainly dramatized, they focus on an entirely different aspect of having cancer than most other stories being told.

To make a movie relatable, it should reflect reality. For instance, when was the last time you saw a movie about mesothelioma? Despite its importance being diminished by dull cable commercials, mesothelioma is a very common form of cancer stemming from asbestos exposure in both public and residential buildings. It can often be found in big cities. Oddly enough, Hollywood hasn’t touched on this kind of cancer, presumably due to its lack of ability to be romanticized.

Maybe misrepresentation in movies has to do with how Hollywood consumers see cancer already. It can be difficult to draw a line between exploitation and artistic license, but moviemakers should ask who is being represented and affected by these narratives, and whose story are they to tell?

If cancer patients have qualms with how Hollywood represents their struggles, then maybe those who haven’t had cancer should take issue with it as well. Storytelling and art often romanticize real-life experiences, the way cancer is portrayed in movies doesn’t accurately reflect reality.

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