Cancer doesn't ask permission when it barges into people's lives. It can turn things upside down, change perspectives, and demand a lot. In 2018, an estimated 1,735,350 new cases of cancer occurred. It's something that many are living with but few are talking about.
In the late '80s and early '90s, Hollywood began to produce movies about cancer. A-list actors took on challenging roles of people diagnosed with cancer. For the first time, sad movies about "real-life diagnoses" took over the big screen. Not only did these movies get great reviews, some even received the distinction of being among the most loved classics of all time.
The movies on this list are good examples of how cancer can show up in our lives. They are filtered through the lens of Hollywood, but they still shed light on an important topic.
1. A Walk to Remember
A Walk to Remember is based on the novel written by Nicholas Sparks shares a story about an unusual high school pairing and the tragedy of an untimely cancer diagnosis. Mandy Moore plays Jamie, a young woman and pastor's daughter diagnosed with Leukemia.
Jamie falls in love with the popular Landon, portrayed by Chad Michael Murray. Landon helps take care of Jamie during her battle with cancer. Only teenagers, Jamie and Landon are confronted with a huge challenge.
This movie illustrates the struggles of living with cancer and how love can lighten the load.
2. The Fault in Our Stars
Based on the novel by John Green, The Fault in Our Stars a tearjerker. Enter the world of Hazel Grace Lancaster. She's a precocious sixteen years old living with thyroid cancer, and is about as wry and practical about it as one can be.
Her journey has been quite lonely until she meets Augustus "Gus" Waters at a Cancer support group. They bond over their cancer diagnosis' and begin to get to know each other. This movie is about fighting a hard battle while still trying to live life to the fullest.
3. Marvin’s Room
Marvin's Room features well-known stars Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Diane Keaton, and Robert De Niro. It’s a film about the complicated aspects of illness and family. Keaton's character, Bessie, has been the caregiver for her father for 20 years.
When she is diagnosed with Leukemia, she turns to her estranged sister for support. The story focuses on grief and its challenges, and ultimately asks the question “What happens when a caregiver falls ill?” It also addresses mental illness, forgiveness, and the undeniable connection of family.
4. My Sister’s Keeper
Grab your tissue box for this one. My Sister's Keeper is about how family is affected when someone is diagnosed with cancer. A young woman, Kate, has Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia and needs support.
Because her parents and brother are not a genetic match, a doctor suggests her parents have a third child. Anna is born and spends 11 years donating stem cells, organs and tissues to help keep her sister alive.
This movie explores the drastic lengths people go to keep someone alive. It's a story about sacrifice, the power of choice, and the undying bond between sisters.
We don't see many movies about young men with cancer. This one is an exception. 50/50 tells the story of a 27-year-old journalist, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has Schwannoma Neurofibrosarcoma.
The movie title references his 50/50 chance of beating his diagnosis. You will laugh and cry as this character journeys through treatment. His close family and friends play key roles along the way. This story focuses on strength and the power of a positive mindset.
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Stepmom attempts to normalize the many ways divorce can affect families. Two kids, Anna and Ben are learning how to navigate life with divorced parents. Their mom Jackie, played by Susan Sarandon, is also adjusting to this new life.
Her ex-husband marries Isabel, played by Julia Roberts, adding a young stepmom to the chaos. Things are rocky as everyone tries to adjust to this new normal. An extra challenge is added when Jackie gets diagnosed with Lymphoma.
Isabel strives to learn everything she can about Jackie’s life to keep her legacy alive. This movie explores how an atypical family deals with cancer. It also makes the audience think about parental loss.
7. Sweet November
Sweet November is a true tearjerker. A love story develops between Sara and Nelson. After spending a whole month together (November), things take a heavy turn. Sara reveals to Nelson that she has Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. She tries everything she can to push him away, including telling him to leave.
Like many people faced with cancer, Sara can't bear to see Nelson watch her suffer. This story has a very different ending than most love stories. It addresses the heartbreaking reality of having to say goodbye to someone you love.
8. Miss You Already
Trish Collette and Drew Barrymore star as best friends in Miss You Already. The movie explores the adult lives of two friends amid the drama of everyday life.
One of the friends is diagnosed with breast cancer and the other is struggling to have a baby. The story reveals the scary reality of living with a terminal diagnosis. And it shows what it can take to keep fighting. Through joy and tears, these two women discover that friendship is forever.
9. P.S. I Love You
P.S. I Love You starts at the time of death and works its way back. Holly, played by Hilary Swank, uncovers a series of notes left by her late husband who died of a brain tumor.
The movie reveals how she copes with grief and the memories she shared with her husband. This movie shows the griever’s perspective. It lets you see the challenge of being the partner of someone with cancer. Holly experiences frequent moments of sadness throughout the film.
But she manages to find joy and meaning in her life with the help of her husband’s letters. It's a must-watch. It is sure to make you laugh, and cry.
10. Dying Young
Julia Roberts plays the role of a caretaker for Victor, a 28-year-old man with Leukemia. Dying Young follows this pair as their relationship changes from caretaker/caregiver to lovers.
Together they begin to address treatment options and end of life decisions. Victor wants to run away from the treatment and hospitals, but his newfound love brings a change of heart. This story sheds light on the difficult treatment decisions that a person may have to make.
11. Autumn in New York
Richard Gere and Winona Ryder are an unlikely pair in Autumn in New York. Gere's character, Will, is twice the age of Ryder's character, Charlotte. They don't expect to be with one another, but fate seems to have a different plan.
Charlotte shares with Will that she has Neuroblastoma. Despite her diagnosis, the two fall in love. Will uses his power and money to try to save Charlotte. It's a beautiful story of how cancer can change perspective and cultivate new values.
12. Irreplaceable You
This rom-com takes a different approach to receiving a terminal diagnosis. Abbie finds out she has terminal cancer after getting engaged to Sam. Instead of wallowing in the sadness, she sets out to find Sam a prospective mate.
This isn't your typical end of life story. Instead, it's a sweet alternative. Abbie's dying wish is to make sure Sam is happy. Its unconventionality is what makes it such an interesting story. Abbie's way of living her life to the fullest is by making sure Sam never feels alone after her death.
Talking About the C-Word
If you are experiencing a cancer diagnosis first-hand or know someone who is, you are not alone. Most people are afraid to talk about cancer. It’s a topic fraught with emotion for many people. But it's important to remember that it's okay to be sad.
Don’t let that stop you from expressing your feelings. With increased awareness, we are able to understand that cancer isn't always terminal. It isn’t an immediate death sentence, and in some cases can be overcome. Cancer is a part of life that isn't pretty, but it happens.
The movies on this list can help you reconcile your feelings about cancer. Watching other people navigate their emotions and learning about the journey can help. After seeing how others have managed the process you may feel more at ease. And then you can approach your journey with renewed optimism.
- Cancer Statistics, National Cancer Institute, www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics