11/01/2011 02:42 pm ET | Updated Jan 01, 2012

50/50 in the Game of Life

If you're lucky, you may be able to still find the film 50/50 at your local movie theater. If not, try to see it when it becomes available for streaming. The film, which recounts with humor and insight the story of a young man's unexpected confrontation with cancer, has much to teach us about odds we face in life.

Human beings are creatures of routine. As our lives move along, we make relatively seamless transitions from school to work, from single to family life, moving among sets of reasonably comforting routines. During this life of routine comfort, we sometimes chance upon peak moments, episodes of intense happiness or pleasure that we savor before slipping back into the quiet satisfactions of everyday life. Immersed in our routines, most of us take a lot for granted. Most of us have food to eat, a place to sleep, and friends and family to enjoy. We also usually take for granted our good health. For most of us illness is a nuisance for which we take medicine for a few days or weeks. Sometimes illness forces us to visit the doctor for more medicine but our usual expectation is that these incidents are transitory way stations on the road back to the normal steady state of health.

Imagine if the assumption of normal health is suddenly obliterated with a diagnosis of cancer. That's the scenario in 50/50, an excellent portrayal of what happens when someone you know suddenly becomes a cancer patient with a 50/50 chance of survival. In the film Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young twenty something radio journalist without a care in the world begins to suffer from fatigue and back pain. He has some tests and some scans, but doesn't think he's seriously ill. When he meets with his doctor to discuss the results of these tests, the doctor, a middle-aged white man dressed in a lab coat, describes the test results in a clinical doctor talk filled with polysyllabic terms. The doctor points to the CT scan images as if their message is clear. Adam, who doesn't know what's happening, asks for clarification. With great reluctance, the doctor finally admits that Adam has cancer.

What are my chances? Adam asks.

Citing the severity and rarity of the cancer, doctor the mumbles, 50/50. "We have people you can talk to about this," he suggests.

Adam, who is young, after all, wonders how he could have cancer. But eventually there is no denial of denial and he meets with a councilor, a clinically inexperienced young woman working on her dissertation. Numbed by the unexpected change in his life, he finds the initial session a waste of time. Who, after all, could understand what he's going through? His life has been completely upended and he is facing his own mortality at an unspeakably young age.

When he tells his friends and family about the cancer, no one knows what to do. His girlfriend, Rachael, a struggling artist, puts up a brave front, but in the end, she can't deal with the existential uncertainties of cancer and leaves Adam for someone else. His friend Kyle is also challenged. He thinks that Adam should lose himself in new sexual encounters, which, during chemotherapy, don't quite work out. Adam's mother, who has been overly protective, continues her smothering overreaction, which prevents any meaningful mother-son dialogue. Adam's father, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease and can hardly recognize his son, let alone understand his fragile physical conditions. His co-workers don't now how to relate to Adam. Does he really have cancer? Is he really going to die?

Like all cancer patients, Adam has to face his disease alone. No one can really understand what he's going through, except for two men who sit next to him during chemotherapy treatments. They have an immediate and deep understanding of Adam's situation. With few words, they give one another comfort and move through the treatment process with measures of mutual support.

When one of his chemotherapy buddies dies suddenly, Adam is forced to confront anew his 50/50 odds of survival. In the end Adam survives risky surgery and realizes how much his mother, father, and Kyle love him. He also develops a romantic bond with his councilor. Slowly, Adam's life moves into a profoundly reconfigured world that promises to be full of personal reward.

Having journeyed along cancer's path for ten years, I can say that 50/50 hits the right notes about emotionless doctor talk and the impersonal institutionalization of health care. It also shows how the cancer experience can sometimes be funny, or sad, or how it can be filled with both gut-wrenching disappointment and heart-warming surprise. The message of 50/50 is important for any person. Sudden change and personal struggle, the 50/50 odds in the game of life, compels you to appreciate what's important: the bonds we create with family and friends as well as leaving the traces of our being that are destined to linger long after we are gone.