Surviving cancerCancer is even worse in the movies

Published Feb. 28, 2013

Thanks in part to earlier diagnoses and advances in treatment, the chances of surviving some of the most common types of cancer have increased in the past few decades. This chart shows the percentage of people who lived at least five years after a diagnosis of one of the 10 most common types of cancer.

There are too few Hollywood endings when it comes to the depiction of cancer in the movies, doctors say.

Last fall, Italian researchers analyzed 82 cancer-themed movies, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Gran Torino. They found that rarer cancers were most often featured and that characters were more likely to die than real-life patients.

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

Cancer is the second-most-common cause of the death in the United States, second only to heart disease. Troubling trends make headlines, such as this week's news that rare but serious breast cancer among young women has increased slightly.

Yet the overall picture is more optimistic. As diagnosis has improved and treatments have advanced, there are an estimated 13.7 million survivors, according to the National Cancer Institute.

In the movies analyzed, 40 characters with cancer were women and 35 were men, although more men develop cancer. Death occurred in 63 percent of the movies. By contrast, the American Cancer Society reports that the five-year survival rate for all cancers is 68 percent.

The researchers noted that common cancers, including breast cancer, are hardly represented, while relatively rare leukemias, lymphomas and brain tumors predominate.

Dr. Robert A. Clark, a Florida radiologist who conducted a similar film review published in 2001, said lung, breast and colon cancers are largely avoided, in part because fictional patients are usually young and attractive. The majority of cancers, however, occur in those 55 and older.

"Cancer can involve a lot of messy things — surgeries with colostomies and urinary bags and some kind of nasty things," Clark said. "That's not something that filmmakers typically want to portray."

Clark also said he believes that lung cancer is ignored because filmmakers are enamored with smoking.