50/50: A Cancer Patient’s Review

Warning: this post contains spoilers and details about the movie 50/50.  All readers have now been officially warned.

Don’t worry.  I’m not going to turn this blog into another current events and movie review blog, but after seeing 50/50 last night I felt it was relevant enough to be posted here.  When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I immediately started categorizing movies into ones I could still watch and ones I couldn’t.  Among the list of “not viewable” were Terms of Endearment, Beaches, and Steel Magnolias.  Too much death and sadness to be good for me.  I needed uplifting and inspiring films…or at least stupid-humor comedies.  Something to distract me from what I am living through.

No sooner did I start jotting down my emotional upheaval than Hollywood was abuzz with a film about to premier.  Based on the true story of Will Reiser, 50/50 was a young adults journey through a cancer diagnosis.  Wait…what?  Hollywood was taking on something big and real?  They weren’t going to sensationalize it at all?  That didn’t sound right.  Yet, that didn’t matter either.  It was on the DO NOT VIEW list of films for me the second I heard about it.  I didn’t need to know what it was like to be a young adult with cancer; I am a young adult with cancer.  I go to movies to escape my reality, not suffer through it further.

Before long, the movie was out of the traditional theaters, but that didn’t stop me from thinking about it and wondering how well it was done.  Too many movies throw cancer in as a plot device without actually showing the true effects to the patient and family.  It’s something that tugs at the heart, but the real scope of its destruction is underplayed.  I wondered if 50/50 would be any different.

Then two things happened: Will Reiser was announced as a guest at the cancer summit I want to attend in March and 50/50 was released to our cheap theater here in town.  For those unaccustomed to cheap theaters, they release some of the films from the larger chains about three to six months after they have been on screen (usually just before the release to DVD).  They also cost about two bucks a person to attend instead of seven to ten.  Much more budget savvy for those films you aren’t sure are worth the horrendous prices of a theater.  Malika and I had talked off and on about seeing 50/50 since we heard about it, but now that the cancer summit had the man behind the movie attending, it seemed impossible not to view the film.  How could we appreciate him without knowing his story?

For the record, there’s a reason we have gut instincts and should listen to them.

I was nervous when we arrived at the theater; could I really handle watching this play out?  The answer is no, I couldn’t.  Several times I was tempted to flee the theater and my leg bounced so much I’m surprised I didn’t launch from my seat.  I cannot remember a single scene that didn’t have me crying so hard that I was hiccuping.  Milo was awesome throughout, holding me and handing me tissues, but I was so incredibly lost to the film.

Maybe I should explain.  In the film we meet Adam, a twenty-seven-year-old man who is super neurotic.  He won’t drive a car because it is the fifth leading cause of death (ironic, no?) and he seems to be big on the neat, organic type things.  Every morning he jogs.  He has this great appearing life: a sweet girlfriend, a good best friend and a job he likes.  It’s perfect…except for the incredible back pain that won’t go away.  He ignores it for a while, but eventually he caves and sees a doctor, expecting a muscle relaxer.  Instead, he gets the following news: he has cancer in his spine and only a fifty percent chance of surviving.

No, I don’t see any similarities in our stories.  I don’t know what you are talking about.

Anyway, Adam then begins the adventure of chemotherapy and counseling.  He shaves his head to keep the chemo from causing it to fall out.  He learns his perfect girlfriend is actually cheating on him, despite the fact that she chose to stay and help him through the cancer.  His best friend wants to use his cancer to help them both have all the sex they could want (by the way, the R rating was well earned due to language).  Just when things seem to be at the absolutely lowest, Adam is told chemo isn’t working, the tumor is still growing and the only hope he has to survive is a surgery that might kill him.

Suddenly driving looks a whole lot less scary, no?

Again, I pretty much cried from the moment he was diagnosed until the end, even though I assumed our dear Adam was going to live since…well, Will did.  I didn’t just understand what Adam was going through; I was Adam.  Unfortunately, my experiences completely blurred my ability to tell if the movie was good to an outsider.  What I can tell you is that as a person who is battling this disease, the movie was dead on.  If you want to know what a cancer patient/survivor is going/has gone through, this movie will do it for you.  I knew what it was like to go into tunnel hearing mode where you hear nothing but the word cancer over and over in your head.  In fact, I still sometimes catch myself thinking “I have cancer. I have cancer. I have cancer.”  I know what it is like to feel so angry that you want to scream, hit, kick and bite someone or something just to feel better.  Of course, there is no one to pummel.  There is no victim of the violence, because the cancer is invisible and you can rage against it all you want but you’ll never hurt it.  I’ve sat through the slow drips of chemotherapy, the side effects that make you ill.  I’ve heard the “You don’t look sick.” and all the other advice and words meant to make me feel better.  I know they don’t work.  The doctor has told me my chemotherapy isn’t working and we need more options.  I deal every day with the truth I might die and I’ve watched all the people I love ignore that same truth because it just hurts too much to deal with it.

I am Adam.

Well, that really sucks.

For me, the movie was a chronicle of my journey too.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt did an amazing job playing Adam.  Will Reiser’s script was near perfect.  The music choices were extremely well done.  My only complaint had to be the amount of foul language –I curse, I’m not perfect, but this bordered ridiculous– and the let’s use the cancer for sex purposes.  I don’t know if that is how others have dealt with this, but I sure know I didn’t.  I also feel like this film would have been completely different if the main character was a female in the same age group.  There would have been more discussion of fertility and life after cancer.  I know for me, that was a huge issue.  I wanted to know the dreams Milo and I had for a family wouldn’t be crushed because of the scary C-word.

I also feel like there were other parts missing.  Yes, it is a movie and they have limited time to cover the entire range of suck-itude from cancer, but while Adam was very clear he understood he might die, and very angry from that, I feel as if they cut short his reaction to it.  I know perfectly healthy people with a bucket list, but Adam didn’t seem to have anything he wanted to get done before he died.  He lived a lot in anger and denial, but that was about it emotionally.  I know I am female and all, but I can’t imagine I’m the only one that occasionally delves into self-pity and cries.  Grief is part of cancer for everyone, even survivors.  I would have liked to see more of his dealing with that and less of them attempting to pick up random girls at bars.

All in all, it was a good movie; Malika, Milo and Jeff seemed to appreciate it, even if it was depressing and made them cry.  Adam does live, for those who are wondering but won’t see the movie.  As I said, the movie is based on Will Reiser dealing with his own cancer diagnosis.  I wasn’t really surprised that Adam made it through mostly unscathed.  I could totally see nursing and medical schools using this film to educate students on being a patient.  For that purpose, scenes were dead on.  For me, I don’t know.  Watching it again now would be far too difficult, but I could see it being in my movie collection to remind me of the time I fought and won (because I will win.)

So, I’ll give 50/50 two thumbs up and a box of Kleenex.

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2 thoughts on “50/50: A Cancer Patient’s Review

  1. Malika says:

    2 thumbs up and a box of Kleenex indeed!

  2. jdp64 says:

    YES! You WILL WIN!!!! yes yes yes yes yes!

    I just LOVE you to pieces!
    Mom

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