Cancer Portrayed Too Grimly in Movies, Study Suggests

FRIDAY Sept. 21, 2012 -- Movies rarely portray a cancer patient's chances of survival accurately and need to show audiences that a cancer diagnosis is far from always a death sentence, a new study suggests.

Researchers analyzed 82 movies that center on a person with cancer -- including "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Gran Torino" and "Diary of a Country Priest" -- and found that the cancer experiences depicted in the films were quite different from the truth.

The investigators found that cancer patients died in 63 percent of the movies. The most frequent treatments mentioned in the movies were chemotherapy and pain relief. Cancer symptoms were mentioned in 72 percent of the movies and diagnostic tests were mentioned in 65 percent.

The findings were scheduled for presentation Thursday at the European Society for Medical Oncology meeting, in Vienna.

"Nowadays, cinema is confronting the most important issues for oncological disease, which were mostly absent in the earlier days of cinema," Dr. Luciano De Fiore at Sapienza University of Rome, said in a society news release. "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."

However, the movies tend to offer a bleak outlook for cancer patients.

"Very often the ill person doesn't get over the disease and his death is somehow useful to the plot's outcome. This pattern is so strongly standardized that it persists in spite of real progress of treatments," De Fiore said.

Some common types of cancer -- such as breast cancer -- were barely represented in movies, the researchers found, while depictions of lymphomas, leukemia and brain tumors predominated.

De Fiore suggested there is an "educational gap" in movies' depiction of cancer.

"Patients' survival is very rarely due to treatments in the cinema. Fortunately in real life, this has become mostly untrue," he said.

Research presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The U.S. National Cancer Institute explains cancer prognosis.

Posted: September 2012


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