By Lori Hope
What do Seth Rogen and I have in common? First, our early TV shows, though critical successes, flopped in the ratings. Second, we're both Jewish (though my parents weren't socialists who met on an Israeli kibbutz). And third, we have both played the Cancer Card for personal gain.
Okay, it wasn't actually Seth, but the character, Kyle, he plays in the new cancer comedy, 50/50, who shamelessly exploits his best friend's cancer to get into a girl's pants. When I played the Cancer Card it wasn't to get laid for free, but to wriggle out of a late fee. I'd just been diagnosed, and everything in my world, bills included, took a back seat to the disease. When I blew a credit card payment and called customer service to explain why, the rep said sympathetically, "Consider the fee gone." If only cancer were so magically zapped.
Rogen's tacky Cancer Card-play is just one of the many comic antics that trumps the tragedy of cancer in 50/50. The Knocked Up star's cluelessness about what to say when his best friend, Adam (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is newly diagnosed with a rare cancer, shows from the moment he learns of it.
"You're gonna be okay," reassures Kyle, naming several celebrities who've survived cancer, including Patrick Swayze, who clearly didn't. "Look on the bright side."
"What bright side?" asks Adam.
Ironically, showing moviegoers the lighter side of cancer is one of the reasons screenwriter Will Reiser, on whom Adam's character in 50/50 is based, wrote the script: to break a filmic taboo.
"Though it's hard to say there's a lighter side of cancer... it's not all gloom and doom," Reiser told me over the phone. "Most of the movies you see about illness are so heavy handed and maudlin, that Seth and I thought what if I could show a lot of the absurdity and a lot of the funny things that were also happening to me, that might be a way to open up a larger discussion a) about illness and b) also about what we find acceptable to present in film."
Presenting the "If Lance beat it, so can you" or "Just think positively" remarks that others often proffer to prop up your spirits, goes a long way toward opening hearts and minds to what most of the walking well seek to avoid completely. And that promises to go a long way toward helping people with cancer feel less dismissed, marginalized, and misunderstood.
"I'm going to throw a party," declares Kyle, Reiser's real-life best friend -- as if a going-away party with your public-radio station colleagues, where people ask "How-long-do-you-have" questions, is what anyone with cancer wants!
When I was about to undergo surgery recently to remove a cancer in my lung, I gathered together my closest friends, not to say goodbye, but to express my love and ask for their help taking care of me afterward. I didn't want to call it a "Healing Circle" (too New-Agey), so I called it a Hope Oval. My friends knew better than to ask hope-busting questions, not only because they're far more sensitive than Kyle, but because I've been educating them about what I need for many years.
I became an authority in psycho-social cancer support after writing a book about the subject in 2005, following my first bout with the disease, and in ensuing years, I intensified my study, conducting a survey of more than 600 survivors, the results of which appear in the newly released second edition of my book, Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know.
The #1 statement people with cancer want others to know, according to the survey, is "I need to laugh -- or just forget about cancer or a while." Although 50/50 doesn't let you forget for an instant, it will make you laugh, and for many of us gut-punched by the disease, provide catharsis.
For friends and loved ones, lines in the film such as, "I don't know how to do this [help someone with cancer]" and "I'm sorry I keep saying the wrong thing" defuse the tension, and make it permissable to feel uncomfortable and blunder (one of the statements in Help Me Live is, "It's okay to say or do the 'wrong' thing" - just don't disappear!). For survivors, witnessing Adam's breakdowns, first in a violent diatribe and later in his mother's arms, may help purge some of the residual anger and pain.
Reiser saw the potential for this when he screened the film at his alma mater, Hampshire College in Massachusetts, and was approached afterward by a favorite professor.
"[He] said to me, 'My mother and I have not talked about when my stepfather died of cancer 22 years ago, and I want her to go see this movie because I know if she sees this we'll be able to have a conversation about it.'
"You hear that and, wow it's not just a moviegoing experience, it's sort of therapeutic," continued Reiser. "How incredible is that? For me, that's what's most important."
For many who see 50/50, what may seem most important are the funny lines, most of which are given to Rogen, and are not-necessarily truth-based. (I asked Reiser if Rogen really shaves his crotch and if he used Reiser's cancer to pick up girls. "No, those are just jokes. Seth and I, when we were that age, were too terrified of women to actually talk to them that way.")
Though the humor in 50/50 will open our hearts, what will undoubtedly remain is the feeling that we share lots in common with both Will Reiser and Seth Rogen -- that it's easy to get lost in our own point of view, but that when we watch films like 50/50, we ultimately gain new perspective, empathy, and hope.
A cancer survivor, Lori Hope has written and spoken about cancer support for almost a decade. Her best-selling cancer support book, Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know, was released this September in a new, expanded second edition that includes a foreword by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., a survey of more than 600 survivors, new sections on gender and cultural differences and childhood and adult cancers, and a "Quick Guide to Cancerquette." Hope's essays and articles have appeared in publications including Newsweek, and cancer-related and college English textbook anthologies. Her work has been featured on Oprah and The Today Show and in Time magazine and she has spoken before staff and leadership of the American Cancer Society, the Oncology Nursing Society, and dozens of other groups. To order her book and to read her blog, visit Lori on www.LoriHope.com and Red Room.