How cinema has influenced our understanding of cancer

Cancer is often referred to as an incurable disease in movies and TV shows that snowballs into the thought that cancer means death.
Cancer Awareness
Cancer Awareness
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Whether we laugh out loud at comedians' misunderstanding about cancer or hold out a tissue to actors when they spit out a mouth full of blood, we subconsciously end up making assumptions about what cancer can do to a patient.

From as early as the 1950s to now, cancer has made cameo appearances in many movies across the globe. But to our’s and cancer’s dismay, it has often been misrepresented.

“These concepts portrayed in cinema are far from the truth. It just creates paranoia among people,” says Dr AN Vaidhyswaran, Director and Senior Consultant, Radiation Oncologist, Kauvery Cancer Institute, Alwarpet, Chennai. So here are a few cancer myths you need to be wary of.

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Cancer ≠ Death

While filmmakers add on layers of exaggeration to elevate the drama quotient, what they also do is ignite a sense of panic among the viewers. Cancer is often referred to as an incurable disease in movies and TV shows that snowballs into the thought that cancer means death. Because of this, even when great advancements have been made in cancer care, people still think cancer means death.

“This could have been the case 30-40 years ago. But in the last two decades, there have been great improvements in the field of oncology and now the survival rate is very high,” Dr Vaidhyswaran says.

Misrepresentation of cancer treatment

Cancer treatment too has been getting a fair share of the limelight. From Hollywood to Bollywood to Kollywood, many actors have been portrayed with shaved heads, tubes injected into their bodies and a zombie-like appearance.

Dr AN Vaidhyswaran says that a person receiving chemotherapy may not have the symptoms as shown on screen. “There are side effects but it is not necessary for the patient to have all the physical symptoms. They can look normal. Hair loss is possible but it grows back,” says the doctor.

The most common cancer treatments are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy or a combination of all three, depending on the type of cancer. “With these procedures, cancer can be cured even in certain advanced cases. Additionally, there is immunotherapy, hormone therapy, bone marrow transplant etc.” he adds.

Exaggeration of symptoms

Just like the side-effects, the symptoms too are blown out of proportion, the doctor points out, “No cancer patient goes around coughing out blood. It happens only if the patient has a tear in the food pipe, stomach ulcers or in very advanced stages of cancer.” But in movies and TV shows, the character usually realises that something is wrong with them only when they spit-out a mouthful of blood and proceed for diagnosis. 

“Each type of cancer presents itself in many ways but the most common symptoms are sudden weight loss, ulcers that don’t heal, change in bowel habits and lumps,” he says. But these symptoms don’t automatically mean cancer either. It is recommended to consult with an oncologist only if these symptoms don’t heal within two weeks with or without medication.

Cancer and lifestyle

Along with fear, society also looks at cancer with a stigma. There is a popular belief that a bad lifestyle is the cause of cancer. On the other hand, there is also a belief that leading a healthy life is an escape card. Both of these assumptions are both right and wrong. “Cancer can be caused because of factors that are either extrinsic or intrinsic. Tobacco, alcohol, obesity and exposure to other carcinogens are extrinsic factors while having a gene that predisposes the person to getting cancer is an intrinsic factor,” Dr Vaidhyswaran says.

But a stomach cancer patient in a popular tamil movie is seen asking his doctor why he got cancer even if he doesn’t drink, smoke or engage in sexual intercourse. Last we checked, even gynecological cancers aren’t classified as sexually transmitted diseases.

While movies do their part by warning the audience about cancer with smoking and drinking disclaimers, a change in the representation of cancer can encourage many patients to think that there is hope after cancer.

This article has been published in association with Kauvery Hospital.

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