Coping With Emotions

Does “The Fault in Our Stars” (and Other Movies) Depict Cancer Treatments Accurately?

"The Fault in Our Stars" was praised for accurately portraying the emotions of teens with cancer. Find out what other aspects of the cancer experience Hollywood gets right (and some it gets terribly wrong).

You might not think many movies feature cancer patients until you or a loved one is diagnosed. Then it seems to be rampant on the big screen. “The Fault in Our Stars” is just one recent example in the cancer movie genre, a John Green young-adult book turned movie of the same title. Those watching cancer patients in movies see it with a different eye, evaluating how accurately the movie depicts cancer treatment and how honestly the acting and script treat the emotions and experiences.

How Movies Depict Patients

“The Fault in Our Stars” focuses on two teens with cancer who met in a support group. It was a movie (and a book) that brought cultural attention to those living with cancer, especially in that younger age group. In a piece for ABC News, teenaged cancer survivors and cancer professionals praised the story for presenting the uniqueness of a pediatric diagnosis. Physicians were critical of the cancer patients’ outcomes in the movie, however, saying that these were rare diagnoses and more easily treated than the movie portrayed, according to Healio, a hematology-oncology publication.

How Movies Depict Treatments

Critics routinely panned “A Little Bit of Heaven,” a movie about an attractive, chipper woman who is diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. One reason it’s been negatively reviewed is its inaccurate portrayal of the main character’s cancer treatment. A review from the San Francisco Chronicle says the main character’s reaction to chemo was more like a hangover, and she never lost her hair (though she did stop wearing makeup). The critic claimed the character unrealistically looked more radiant the sicker she got. A review from Pajiba says the actress’ “…latest effort makes dying from cancer seem like a marvelous, almost enviable thing.”

“The Fault in Our Stars” got some similar complaints from teens who had been through cancer treatment, saying that the characters never looked sick or affected by their treatment, with no baldness from chemotherapy or swelling from steroids.

How Movies Depict Relationships

“The Fault in Our Stars” was praised for accurately reflecting the teen experience with cancer. Peers may not understand what their friends with cancer are going through, so seeing a movie depict aspects of their lives with cancer is meaningful, according to an NPR article.

Other relationships include ones between patient and doctor. In “A Little Bit of Heaven,” the lead character has romantic entanglements with her doctor, mentions The Hollywood Reporter, which would be considered unethical in the real world.

How Movies Depict the Overall Experience

The HBO movie “Wit” involves a professor facing stage IV ovarian cancer. She agrees to a grueling form of chemotherapy as part of a research study done by physicians more concerned with their scientific work than the patient’s humanity. Roger Ebert said in a review of “Wit” that he had to turn the movie off when watching it. “I have had cancer, and had all too many hours, days and weeks of hospital routine robbing me of my dignity.” When Ebert watched it again, which he initially saw and appreciated before he was diagnosed was now too honest and truthful for him.

A nurse also reviewed it for the Being Cancer Network, claiming, “It was the most searingly honest portrayal of a person with cancer that I have ever witnessed outside of hospital.”

Watching movies that depict cancer treatment can be difficult for survivors and those going through treatment. These movies can help caregivers and loved ones understand more about what a patient goes through if the movie is done well. But if you’re a patient receiving cancer treatment, get more information on the movie before watching it to ensure it’s the viewing experience you desire.

If you have any concerns about your cancer treatment, talk to your team of doctors about your best available options and outcomes.

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Deborah Abrams Kaplan
Deborah Abrams Kaplan