Movies Show Inaccurate Picture of Cancer

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The portrayal of cancer in movies is often untrue to life, researchers concluded after reviewing 75 films in which one of the main characters had cancer.

For instance, cancer patients in movies tend to be young people who suffer from rare cancers, such as brain tumors and lymphomas, said study researcher Luciano De Fiore, of Sapienza University of Rome.

"Though breast cancer has a very high impact on female subjects, it is barely represented," De Fiore said.

In addition, the ill character often succumbs — death occurred in 63 percent of the reviewed movies.

"Death is somehow useful to the plot’s outcome," De Fiore said. "This pattern is so strong that it’s persisting in spite of real progress of treatments."

De Fiore and his colleagues reported reviewing 75 movies made over the last 70 years in 13 countries. They included "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958), in which Burl Ives plays an overbearing patriarch dying of cancer; "A Little Bit of Heaven" (2011), with Kate Hudson as a terminally ill ad executive; and "50/50" (2011), in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character figures he has a 50-50 chance of surviving a malignancy on his spine.

The researchers took into account the fact that cancer treatments available when some of the earlier movies were released were different from treatments available now,De Fiore said.

Forty of the ill characters were women and the other 35 were men, and most were upper-class or upper-middle-class individuals. Twenty-one movies did not mention the type of cancer the character had.

According to data, the actual risk of cancer rises with age, cancer is more common in men than women, and people from low-income groups are the most likely to be diagnosed with late-stage cancers.

The films' portrayals of cancer symptoms, diagnostic tests and treatments were more representative of real life, the researchers found. Diagnostic tests were mentioned in 65 percent of movies, and symptoms were considered in 72 percent, the researchers said. Chemotherapy was most commonly mentioned as a treatment. Doctors and nurses appeared in 77 percent of films.

Despite inaccuracies, movies can serve to raise cancer awareness, the researchers said.

"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," De Fiore said.

The study is to be presented this week at the European Society for Medical Oncology Congress in Vienna.

Pass it on: Cancer patients portrayed in movies are often younger than most people with cancer.

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