You might watch movies in order to escape from reality — or you might watch them in order to see other people going through the same experiences you are.
Regardless, it’s possible to learn a lot by watching other characters navigate cancer. Here are some of our top picks for movies about cancer.
This comedy-drama was written by Will Reiser about his own experience surviving spinal cancer at age 25.
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg knew Reiser, encouraged his endeavor, and signed on as producers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt nailed the main role of a young man having to fight for his life before he had even really learned how to live. You’ll laugh through your tears.
Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts are at their very best in this prickly family drama, Stepmom. Jackie (Sarandon) detests Isabel (Roberts), the young hip girlfriend of Sarandon’s ex-husband.
The two women are often at odds, especially regarding the role Isabel should play in the lives of Ben and Anna, the children Jackie shares with her ex.
When Jackie is diagnosed with terminal lymphoma, the two women have to find a way to make peace for everyone’s sake. Jena Malone is a star as a wounded, angry preteen Anna.
3. Other People
Former Saturday Night Live head writer Chris Kelly penned this semi-autobiographical comedy-drama, Other People about the death of his mother. The main character David, a gay man, comes home at the age of 29 to care for his mother, Joanne, who is in the advanced stages of leiomyosarcoma.
Not only does he have to endure watching his mother choose to stop treatment, but he must also deal with his conservative, religious family rejecting him because of his sexual orientation. Molly Shannon has the performance of her career as Joanne.
4. My Life Without Me
Sarah Polley stars in this Canadian indie drama, My Life Without Me, as a young mother who learns she has metastatic ovarian cancer and only has a few months to live. She doesn’t tell anyone she’s dying and decides to set her family up for success and indulge in a few things she never got to experience.
She changes her hair and has a fling with another man, but also records birthday messages for her daughters every year until they turn 18 and sets her husband up with another woman.
It’s a heartbreaking tale of a woman who puts everyone’s needs first her whole life, right up until she dies.
5. Terms of Endearment
In Terms of Endearment, Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and Emma (Debra Winger) play a bickering mother-daughter duo who have ups and downs over the years. But when Emma is hospitalized with terminal cancer, Aurora steps up for her.
Watching Aurora demand that the nurses give her daughter a shot for her pain will break your heart. Ultimately, Emma shows her mother the ultimate forgiveness in asking her to raise Emma’s three children.
6. Alternate Endings
Alternate Endings is a recent HBO documentary that explores new ways Americans are making end-of-life decisions. Dick Shannon, a cancer patient, is shown preparing to end his life on his own terms under California’s “death with dignity” law.
Elsewhere, Emilie and Ryan Matthias eschew traditional funeral customs for their son Garrett, who died from cancer. His “life celebration” includes superheroes, snow cones, and bouncy castles. This moving documentary delves into all kinds of new memorials, burials, and more.
You can read our full Alternate Endings review if you want to know more.
7. The Fault In Our Stars
In The Fault In Our Stars, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort play photogenic teens in love who meet in a support group for young people with cancer, so you know right away it’s going to be a real tearjerker.
Gus (Elgort) is in remission, but Hazel (Woodley) is terminal. There is a side plot that involves the young couple traveling to visit Hazel’s favorite writer in Amsterdam, and dealing with the reality of meeting one's heroes. Prepare to cry over its tragic ending.
8. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
In this indie darling, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, high-school senior Greg likes making silly films with his friend Earl. When Greg’s parents make him start spending time with his childhood friend, Rachel, who is dying from leukemia, Greg ends up growing both as an artist and as a person.
It’s a beautiful film about how big an impact a person can make on you, even if they only have a short time on earth. It also has moments of humor, like when it pokes fun at the tragic romance of films like The Fault in Our Stars.
Comedian Tig Notaro had a bad year in 2012. Her mother died, she was hospitalized with a life-threatening C. difficile infection, her relationship ended, and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She took to the stage at Largo and performed a raw, unvarnished set about those experiences, and an audio recording went viral and took her career to a new level. This documentary picks up where that set left off, giving viewers a front-row seat into Notaro’s battle with breast cancer as well as her journey to become pregnant.
You can catch Tig on Netflix.
10. My Sister’s Keeper
This film, based on a Jodi Picoult novel of the same name, My SIster's Keeper features a young girl named Kate who has acute promyelocytic leukemia.
Her younger sister was conceived through in vitro fertilization to serve as a savior sibling who can provide organs or cells. Kate’s sister, 11-year old Anna, has spent her whole life having blood, stem cells, and tissue harvested to keep her sister alive and now may have to give up a kidney. This film is about cancer, but it’s also about tricky family dynamics and medical ethics.
11. The Bucket List
If you’ve ever used the term “bucket list,” you have The Bucket List to thank. Screenwriter Justin Zackham coined it on “Justin’s List of Things To Do Before I Kick the Bucket” which he shortened to “Justin’s Bucket List.”
The first item on the list was to have a screenplay produced at a major Hollywood studio, and he did. This screenplay, in fact, is about two men, portrayed by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, living with lung cancer trying to complete their bucket lists before it’s too late.
12. A Walk to Remember
Nicholas Sparks’ books and the movies made from them can be a tad formulaic. A Walk to Remember has all the key components of a Sparks adaptation.
A terrible secret? Check. A young person dying before her time? Check. Someone forever changed by a brief love affair? Check. But the naturalistic performance by Mandy Moore in one of her earliest acting roles lends a sweetness and groundedness that makes this movie hold up over time.
13. Funny People
In Funny People, George (Adam Sandler) is a successful stand-up comedian-turned movie star who has just been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Ira (Seth Rogen) is an aspiring stand-up comedian who meets George at a comedy club and becomes his assistant and friend.
George goes into remission and back into his old jerkish ways and Ira quits as his assistant. He’s disappointed that George learned nothing from his near-death experience.
This movie makes the interesting point that in real life, very few people can make and sustain a whole personality change even if they do survive cancer.
14. One True Thing
In One True Thing, Ellen (Renée Zellweger) is a successful writer who is persuaded by her father George (William Hurt) to care for her cancer-stricken mother Kate (Meryl Streep). Ellen is disdainful of her mother, who seems overly preoccupied with domestic chores instead of intellectual pursuits.
But when Ellen realizes George is putting all the caretaker duties on her and continuing his own successful life as an Ivy League professor, she sees how much her mother’s behind-the-scenes work went into her own success and George’s.
There’s a powerful message about appreciating people before they’re gone.
15. Brian’s Song
This TV movie has become a cultural touchstone. In Brian's Song, James Caan portrayed Chicago Bears football player Brian Piccolo who was struck with terminal cancer in 1965.
The film is told from the perspective of Gale Sayers, Piccolo’s teammate and close friend, who wrote a memoir about their friendship.
This film stands as one of the few pieces of pop culture that shows a genuine friendship between two men as they help each other through difficult times.
In Wit, Emma Thompson plays Vivian, a demanding and intense English literature professor who prides herself on her wit. Vivian is diagnosed with stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer.
Her oncologist starts her on a rigorous experimental treatment regimen, and though she tries to remain stoic, she finds herself physically and emotionally affected in unexpected ways.
As her life draws to an end and she only has one visitor who cares about her, she wishes she had prioritized human compassion over wit and learned to be kinder. It’s a powerful meditation on regret.
17. The Doctor
In The Doctor, William Hurt plays Jack McKee, a successful but career-obsessed surgeon with a chilly bedside manner and a cavalier attitude toward his patients’ feelings.
Then, he’s diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly, he’s on the receiving end of impersonal examinations by detached doctors but finds grace and compassion from his fellow patients.
He is ultimately treated and cured but does learn a valuable lesson. He goes on to teach medical interns about the importance of compassion.
Dealing with Cancer with the Help of Movies
It can be cathartic to watch a movie where a character is fighting his or her own battle with cancer. Maybe the character will overcome his or her illness, or maybe he or she will make peace with something that needed to be resolved.
Just like children’s books about death can help kids learn coping skills, movies about cancer can provide wisdom to people who have the disease.