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Cancer in Films: Directors Often get it Wrong

Friday, 21 Sep 2012 03:05 PM


Popular movies that feature characters who develop cancer are usually wrong in their depiction of real-world patients’ survival odds, according to a new Italian study.
Researchers from Sapienza University of Rome, who presented the findings at a meeting of the European Society for Medical Oncology in Vienna, suggested: “It's time cinema directors realized cancer isn't always a death sentence.”
After studying 82 movies built around a person with cancer – including "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Gran Torino," and "Diary of a Country Priest" – Dr. Luciano De Fiore and colleagues found the cancer depictions in the films are quite different from the truth. Often, De Fiore said, the prognosis for cancer patients is not as bleak as movie plots make out.
"Very often the ill person doesn't get over the disease and his death is somehow useful to the plot's outcome. This pattern is so strongly standardized that it persists in spite of real progress of treatments," he said. "Maybe there's an 'educational' gap in the concept of movies on cancer. Patients' survival is very rarely due to treatments in the cinema. Fortunately in real life, this has become mostly untrue."
Recent movies have tackled important issues involving cancer, he noted. Among them: environmental causes of cancer in "Erin Brockovich"; the economic implications of treatment in "The Rainmaker"; management of symptoms in "Dying Young," and end-of-life care in "The First Beautiful Thing."
"Nowadays cinema is confronting the most important issues for oncological disease, which were mostly absent in the earlier days of cinema," De Fiore said. "Cancer is no easy matter to portray, and seeing it in a movie gives the audience a chance to give voice to their emotions. This is useful for the sharing of cancer care, from personal or familiar problems to issues of collective relevance."
The films studied included 40 women characters with cancer, and 35 men. In 21 films the type of cancer was not mentioned. Symptoms were considered in 72 percent of the movies, while diagnostic tests were mentioned in 65 percent. The most frequent treatment was chemotherapy. Death occurred 46 times (63 percent of all movies). Doctors and nurses turned up in 58 films (77 percent).
"Theater and movies must always look on 'dramatic' things – this has been true since the days of tuberculosis which was at that time a death sentence and around which a lot of plots evolved, ranging up to such dramatic deaths as in 'La Boheme' or 'La Traviata,' " commented Christoph Zielinski, president of the Central European Cooperative Oncology Group.
"When considering cancer, the more 'dramatic' forms are being portrayed, as fate of both patients and their surroundings can evolve around them. In reality, it is much more living with cancer, being diagnosed with it, being treated and, finally, surviving it which dominates human lives.”


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Researchers conclude: 'It's time cinema directors realized cancer isn't always a death sentence.'
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2012-05-21
Friday, 21 Sep 2012 03:05 PM
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