There are too few Hollywood endings when it comes to the depiction of cancer in movies, doctors say.
Last fall, Italian researchers analyzed 82 cancer-themed movies, including “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Gran Torino.” They found that rarer cancers are most often featured and that characters were more likely to die than real-life patients.
“Very often the ill person doesn’t get over the disease, and his death is somehow useful to the plot’s outcome,” said Dr. Luciano De Fiore in a statement. “This pattern is so strongly standardized that it persists in spite of real progress of treatments.”
Cancer is the second most common cause of the death in the U.S., second only to heart disease. Yet as diagnosis has improved and treatments have advanced, there are an estimated 13.7 million survivors, according to the National Cancer Institute.
In the movies analyzed, 40 characters with cancer were women, and 35 were men, although more men develop cancer. Death occurred in 63 percent of the movies. By contrast, the American Cancer Society reports that the five-year survival rate for all cancers is 68 percent.
The researchers noted that common cancers, including breast cancer, are hardly represented, while relatively rare leukemia, lymphomas and brain tumors predominate.
Dr. Robert A. Clark, a Florida radiologist who conducted a similar film review published in 2001, said lung, breast and colon cancers are largely avoided in part because fictional patients are usually young and attractive. The majority of cancers, however, occur in those 55 and older.
“Cancer can involve a lot of messy things – surgeries with colostomies and urinary bags and some kind of nasty things,” Clark said. “That’s not something that filmmakers typically want to portray. It’s probably also a little more emotionally compelling when you have a 30-year-old victim instead of a 75- or 80-year-old victim.”
Clark examined 20 films made between 1939 and 1999, including “Terms of Endearment,” “Stepmom” and “A Civil Action.” He said he believes lung cancer is ignored because filmmakers are enamored with smoking, despite the fact that in 1991 the tobacco industry instituted a voluntary ban on paid product placement in movies.
As for breast cancer, he said it might be less interesting because so many people are familiar with the disease and because of how Hollywood works.
“If you’re in the film business, part of which is selling sex, it’s hard to walk that line between breasts for titillation and breasts for disease,” Clark said.
He said when he worked at a university cancer center, they would sometimes hold screenings for patients of cancer-themed movies, such as “The Doctor.”
“They often wanted to see cancer movies if they were good,” Clark said. “They also liked ‘Die Hard.’ ”
Dr. Leonard Sender, a University of California-Irvine oncologist who specializes in young-adult cancer, said when he watches movies, he particularly focuses on the portrayals of doctors, sometimes cringing at their arrogance.
He attended an event where Will Reiser, the screenwriter of “50/50,” spoke about the 2011 film, which was based on his diagnosis of spinal cancer at 25. In the movie, the character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt undergoes chemotherapy, sees a therapist and ultimately survives.
“I thought it was really realistic,” Sender said. “Not everyone has to die in the movies. A lot more people are surviving from cancer than dying of cancer.”