Greetings from CancerLand: Splendidly Imperfect 50/50

Alysa Cummings
Alysa Cummings

Last time I checked, cancer is not a comedy. No way. No how. Not even close. Maybe that’s why I was so disturbed by the movie trailer for 50/50 when it first appeared on TV last year.

For some unknown reason, they seemed to be marketing this cancer movie as a comedy. Seriously. Even though there’s not much plot-wise to put a smile on anyone’s face: a man in his late twenties tries to cope with treatment for a malignant tumor in his spine.

(Wait. Don’t laugh yet. There’s more…)

The patient’s dire diagnosis translates into multiple rounds of chemotherapy followed by high-risk surgery. Along the way, his artist/ girlfriend cheats on him, his mother tries to “smother love” the cancer right out of him and his best friend uses a head newly bald from chemo as a cool way to meet girls in bars and bookstores. Good times!

The 50/50 movie trailer made me so mad that I even started complaining about it to a friend who happens to be a fellow cancer survivor.

“Maybe the movie’s not funny-ha-ha,” said my friend. “Maybe it’s more funny- ironic. We should definitely go check it out.”

“I don’t know about that…” I responded. Then my friend suggested an alternate theory.

“Maybe they’re calling 50/50 a comedy just to sell movie tickets…” she said, her voice trailing off.

What was left unspoken was this: who in their right mind would make a serious movie about cancer and actually expect people to queue up and pay the current high price of a movie ticket to see it as entertainment?

Who, indeed. All I can say is that when 50/50 first hit the theatres last year, I was torn, feeling a real “push-pull”: wanting to see the movie because of the subject matter, avoiding seeing the movie because of the subject matter. Do you know what I mean?

Fast forward to now. 50/50 is out on DVD, as well as available on demand. Let the record show that today I surrendered without much of a fight to watch the movie in the privacy of my own living room.

And just as I suspected, 50/50 is definitely NOT a comedy; (I didn’t laugh at all; in fact I actually cried my way through half a box of Kleenex before the credits rolled). But that’s just fine with me because cancer is not a comedy. Instead, 50/50 is a wonderful film that focuses in a meaningful way on the cancer patient experience.

The movie shares moments – intense moments – that will ring true to many CancerLand veterans. Our hero gets the bad news sitting in his doctor’s office and the image on the screen immediately goes out of focus and the audio fades away. What a powerful way to depict the shock of a cancer diagnosis!

His doctor stays in a cold, clinical mode as he speaks with his patient about the treatment plan for his cancer. And his response to his patient’s deer-in-the-headlights expression is to immediately offer him the services of capable psychologists and social workers on staff.

Our newly diagnosed hero immediately makes an appointment to get some of that prescribed emotional support and discovers that he is patient #3 for a graduate student completing her dissertation. She quotes the psychosocial literature admirably, but is unable to be present and offer much comfort to a patient who is unnerved by life and death concerns, beyond patting his arm mechanically (there, there, this must be difficult for you…) as she has been very well trained to do.

Chemotherapy in the film is depicted as a social experience fueled by shared patient anger as well as home-baked cookies laced with marijuana. The newbie learns the ropes from two older cancer patients sitting in nearby barcaloungers who introduce themselves with the stage and location of their cancers. The instant intimacy among cancer patients is good medicine of another sort entirely, and our hero soon enjoys the benefits of connecting with fellow travelers on the road to recovery.

Caregivers try. They really do. But the truth is obvious – it’s not easy supporting a cancer patient who is going through the rigors of treatment. 50/50 introduces us to a girlfriend who admits she would rather wait for hours in the car than accompany her boyfriend into the Chemo Lounge. (I need to keep my energy separate from that), and to a best friend who secretly reads books in the bathroom with titles like How to Talk to a Cancer Patient and thoughtfully dog ears the best parts. The cancer patient’s mother confesses that she attends a support group for relatives to cope with her son’s health crisis. The details ring true because no doubt they are true; the screenplay was written by a cancer survivor.

Unlike various other cancer-themed movies that have played on the big and small screen over the years, these characters are based on real people and they act in believable ways. They live and breathe on the screen. They say the wrong thing at the wrong time. They mean well. They really do. But they are just like the rest of us – flawed, splendidly imperfect human beings trying to cope in the face of a health crisis.

If there is any humor in 50/50 it’s the chuckle of recognition, of seeing yourself, of seeing people you know and love being portrayed by famous actors in someone else’s cancer story. If you have spent any time at all in CancerLand, the situations and the behaviors on the screen will speak to you and remind you of parts of your own journey through treatment. And if you’re like me, watching 50/50 might move you to play back the mental movie of your own experience, help you acknowledge that you did the best that you could at the time, help you forgive yourself first and then everyone in your inner circle second. After all that, you just might sigh loudly and have a good cry. Not to worry; that’s the great thing about catharsis – it’s all good…

Cancer survivors, caregivers, doctors, nurses and social workers interacting with cancer patients, please add 50/50 to your “must see” list and see if you don’t agree with me.

One thought on “Greetings from CancerLand: Splendidly Imperfect 50/50

  1. Thank you for this post. I tend to think at times I am never going to laugh a real laugh again. I’ve been fighting 3 years now. People who tell me to keep positive or you will die sooner tick me off. I wasn’t a 100% positive person before cancer. Nobody is ALWAYS anything or we would be robots. I also become annoyed with the semantics arguments. It feels like a war, so to help someone understand what it is like I call it a war. I think that the media needs to continue to be honest about it and maybe the fear of the diagnosis wouldn’t be as terrifying. Cancer has changed so much than when my Aunt passed with it 35 years ago. My fellow survivor’s are the ones that finally made me see that all of fights are different, but most of the things I have had to go through are the same.

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