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Study: Cancer in the movies is far different than reality

Film depictions leave a lasting, influential impression on patients

February 20, 2024

Orange, Calif. — On the big screen, a cancer diagnosis is often a springboard to a plotline with a tragic end.

Reality is much more hopeful. New treatments, technologies and diagnostic tools make it possible for people to have a full life long after a cancer diagnosis. In fact, the National Cancer Institute says that survivorship has been rising since the ‘90s.

But the more upbeat 21st century, prognosis for many cancers means little to those who have been diagnosed with it, especially if it’s one they have seen depicted in movies.

Such dramatic portrayals can leave a lasting influence on individuals, according to a recent study co-authored by UCI Health medical oncologist Dr. Arash Rezazadeh Kalebasty. It was published in JCO Online.

It is not unusual, he says, for patients to approach their cancer diagnosis with films like “The Fault in Our Stars” or “Terms of Endearment” in mind.

“I see patients try to make treatment decisions for their cancer based on their experience with a movie,” Rezazadeh says.

“There are so many factors that can influence the therapy one chooses, including the prognosis and cancer type.”

Unrealistic portrayals

The way cancer is treated in movies is often ambiguous or just plain incorrect.

To understand how cancer is depicted on film, Rezazadeh and his co-authors reviewed more than 100 English-language non-documentary movies from the last decade that were tagged in a movie database as involving cancer.

The study found that the way the disease is characterized differs from reality in several ways, including:

  • Cancer type. Only one-third of movies depicted the type of cancer, tumor site and subclassification. The most common cancers highlighted — brain cancer, for one — also do not reflect their true frequency in the population.
  • Curability. Most cancers were portrayed as incurable, which does not reflect the prevalence of early detection and curative treatment for many cancers.
  • Use of palliative care. While palliative care or hospice are common aspects of an overall cancer treatment plan, fewer than one-tenth of patients in films were offered either of these beneficial services.

Additionally, few movies addressed the significant costs associated with cancer care or delved into specific treatments. When treatment was shown, chemotherapy was the most common. No characters were shown being offered more innovative immunotherapy or targeted therapies.

Address misconceptions head-on

Rezazadeh acknowledges that movies exist primarily to entertain rather than inform.

However, they do influence and shape public opinion and perceptions about a variety of topics. For that reason, he and his co-authors urge medical professionals to act as consultants for filmmakers to help unravel discrepancies and misconceptions about cancer.

The information gleaned in the study can be a catalyst for providers to help educate the public and the movie industry about the positive outcomes for many patients with cancer, and to address the misperceptions head-on.

“This is the art of oncology,” Rezazadeh says. “It’s far away from the movies.”

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UCI Health is the clinical enterprise of the University of California, Irvine, and the only academic health system in Orange County. Patients can access UCI Health at primary and specialty care offices across Orange County and at its main campus, UCI Medical Center in Orange, Calif. The 459-bed, acute care hospital, listed among America’s Best Hospitals by U.S. News & World Report for 23 consecutive years, provides tertiary and quaternary care, ambulatory and specialty medical clinics, behavioral health and rehabilitation services. UCI Medical Center is home to Orange County’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center, high-risk perinatal/neonatal program and American College of Surgeons-verified Level I adult and Level II pediatric trauma center, gold level 1 geriatric emergency department and regional burn center. UCI Health serves a region of nearly 4 million people in Orange County, western Riverside County and southeast Los Angeles County. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.