The Fault in our Movies: Hollywood and books glamorize cancer

Bryanna McDermott | Student Columnist

To quote the popular book by John Green, The Fault in Our Stars, “Cancer books suck.”

Not just books though, also movies and television shows. Why? They are unrealistic and do those battling cancer a disservice. Hollywood likes to portray not only cancer, but all other terminal illnesses, as just another blockbuster film idea they can alter however they want in order to sell their product. They turn take these terrible, painful diseases into unrealistic love stories that beautify the underlying problem.

With an older brother who has successfully been battling cancer, I saw firsthand the effects this disease has on not only the patients, but the family. It is nothing like one reads in books or sees in the movies. There’s no adventure to complete the patient’s bucket list. There’s no slow montage of that person’s life. There’s just a lot of heartbreak, a lot of asking God why and a lot of prayers.

This is what the media and pop culture don’t show, the true struggle. The news will play the clips of that 5K race in honor of a victim or the pink clad crowds of October rallying for support and the movies will show the devastated mother falling to her knees after receiving the news, but what they don’t show is the actual day-to-day struggles of those survivors.

It hurts to sit through a “cancer movie” and realizing that this may be the only vision that most have of a person who is battling cancer. They don’t understand that there is not always a love story and that not every cancer patient is withering away in bed like a sick dog.

Cancer is an ugly thing and where Hollywood portrays drug therapies like chemo as a cure, it’s just to extend the patient’s life in a hope that maybe the cancer will recede enough to stop treatments. Media usually shows that chemotherapy and radiation cause loss of hair, but it’s more than that.In fact, the loss of hair may be the easiest part.

In the movies, books, and news reports, where are the other side effects? Where are the days when the patient can’t keep anything in their stomachs because there are too many chemicals in their body trying to fight the cancer? Where are the financial struggles of figuring out how to pay the hospital bills or purchase the medicine needed to keep them alive? Where is the depression of knowing that death may be near, but still trying to put up that fight? I guess it just doesn’t fit into Hollywood’s perspective of cancer being a love story.

The television show, Breaking Bad, may just be the worst offender. The main character, Walter finds out that he’s dying of lung cancer, so in order to help afford his treatments and leave his family in a better place financially after his passing, he begins cooking meth. Really, AMC? Yes, cancer patients want their families to be okay if they do pass away, but I am fairly sure they don’t turn to cooking up meth in order to do so. It’s unrealistic and promotes that as long as you have a good reason making drugs is just fine.

Media also doesn’t like to show the true support of the family behind these patients. The audience doesn’t see the prayers at night before bed, the silent tears when no one is looking, and all the sacrifices a family makes to bring their loved one comfort without letting them know how devastated they truly are. It’s putting on that smile and saying “it’s going to be okay,” even though you’re scared out of your mind. Media often throws the family in the background and focus primarily on the distress of the patient.

In 2005, ABC journalist Marc Lallanilla wrote an article on just how inaccurate the portrayals of cancer and terminal illnesses are. He likes to call it “Movie Star Disease.” Hollywood is looking for a slow tragic death to go along with their endearing love story and cancer has had the staying power in media to do just this on the big screen. Lallanilla also brings up that in the movies and on television, cancer is always terminal. It’s easy to see it that way when movies such as, Brian’s Song and Autumn in New York try to convince the audience other wise.

The fact is, more cancer patients are being cured each year than ever before! According to a study done by the American Cancer Society and other institutes, there’s been a steady decline of deaths among cancer patients. Their research showed that the survival rate is continuing to increase 1.5% each year! Despite all of these advancements in the treatment of cancer, the media still chooses to portray it as an immediate death sentence. They’re looking to sell tickets and get ratings, and the successful treatment of cancer doesn’t sell as well as a tragic death.

I can honestly say though, the one book/movie that portrays terminal illnesses far better than anything else in media was The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Despite being a teen novel, John Green actually gets a lot of meaningful and accurate lessons about cancer out into pop culture.
His tale of two teenage cancer patients falling in love despite their days being numbered shows that cancer doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter what age, race or religion you are; cancer can still find you. His idea of attaching terminal to the word teenager, gives his readers that shock of, “oh wow this is serious.”

There’s no beautification of the disease in TFIOS. It shows the pains and ugliness of a disease that sets out to do one thing and one thing only; kill. The book in particular is something to read to get a better look at cancer because it actually portrays this sense of we can’t control everything in our lives. Hazel and Augustus, the main characters, both face the struggles that cancer brings. They reach points of hopelessness where they are literally too weak to walk and have to be carried or are succumbed to a wheelchair. We even see them writing their eulogies and planning their funerals, a sad truth to life of a cancer survivor. Yet despite their hardships, they find their own little infinity among the ugliness.
If I had my say, I’d keep cancer out of Hollywood all together, no matter how big of a hit The Fault in Our Stars was. It’s something that is private and doesn’t need to portrayed on the big screen because of the unrealistic views it gives about those who actual suffer from such a terrible disease. Unless a film company or publisher is actually going to portray it right without beautifying it, it doesn’t need to be put out for the public because it’s hurting more than helping. It sets panic into those struggling with cancer that the only ending is a slow painful death, when there’s still a large chance the battle may some day end with them victorious.

A message that I have learned personally for those who are battling cancer or know someone who is, hold onto your hope. Your life has meaning and it is not based on how many years you live or how many people you have impacted, it’s all the people who love and support you no matter how ugly life gets.