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Cancer not accurately portrayed in the movies

Friday September 21st, 2012

Movies rarely portray survival rates of cancer accurately, a study of 82 films has revealed.

Research carried out by the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, found that while film directors concentrated on relatively rare types of the disease, characters often don’t survive because their death is “useful to the plot’s outcome”.

Dr Luciano De Fiore examined 82 films that centre on a person with cancer, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Gran Torino and Diary of a Country Priest.

He will tell delegates at the ESMO 2012 Congress of the European Society for Medical Oncology in Vienna, Austria, which takes place between September 28 and October 2, that the cancer experiences described on the big screen are different from reality.

“Nowadays cinema is confronting the most important issues for oncological disease, which were mostly absent in the earlier days of cinema,” says Dr De Fiore.

“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.”

But the prognosis for cancer patients is not always as bleak as fictitious plots make out, which suggests that there is an “educational gap in the concept of movies on cancer”, he says.

“Very often the ill person doesn’t get over the disease and his death is somehow useful to the plot’s outcome,” explains Dr De Fiore. “This pattern is so strongly standardised that it persists in spite of real progress of treatments.

“Patients’ survival is very rarely due to treatments in the cinema. Fortunately in real life, this has become mostly untrue.”

In the films that were studied, 40 female characters and 35 men had cancer. In 21 of the movies, the type of cancer was not mentioned, while symptoms were considered in 72 per cent and diagnostic tests were mentioned in 65 per cent.

The most common treatment was chemotherapy followed by pain-relief, but the cancer patient died in 63 per cent of the films.

Despite the flaws, movies about cancer could have a positive impact, for patients and for doctors, say the researchers.

“Using the ‘big screen’ to show stories about cancer could help raise awareness about how large the problem is and what new therapies are available,” says Dr De Fiore. “Also, by watching movies on cancer, oncologists could become more conscious of problems they are already facing in the therapeutic setting: cancer and sexuality, the relationship between the patient and the medical staff, side-effects of therapies. And some films simply make us reflect upon the meaning of life and death.”

Annals of Oncology September 20 2012 Volume 23, Supplement 9

Tags: Cancer | Europe | General Health

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