In the new film “50/50,” there is a scene where cancer patient Adam, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is on a gurney being wheeled into the operating room with his parents by his side. As the nurses take the 27-year-old away, he calls out for his mom like he’s a little boy. It’s an affecting moment, but for Matthew Zachary, it was particularly personal.
“That’s exactly what happened to me,” said the 37-year-old father of twins from New York City who was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 21. “Literally I’m with my parents and they are wheeling me off to the operating room and I lost it. It was a horrible, horrible experience.”
For Heidi Adams, it was the scene at the dinner table between Gordon-Levitt’s character and his mother, played by Anjelica Huston, who wants to move in to help care for him.
“I remember that conversation with my mother, that struggle at that time in your life when you are discovering your independence, fighting for your independence and you are thrown back into this position where you need to rely on people, where you need your mom. It’s very disorienting,” said Adams, 44, from Austin, Texas, who lived with her parents for 21/2 years when she was 26 and undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for bone cancer.
Making a film about a deadly disease, then adding in strong comedic elements as “50/50" does, would seem to be a recipe either to offend with its audacity or insult with a sappy portrayal. A few other recent films about illness, such as Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” and the Anne Hathaway movie “Love and Other Drugs,” have tried to walk the line between drama and comedy, but reactions were mixed. Yet the reception among those who might be most sensitive about “50/50" -- cancer patients and survivors, particularly young adults -- has been surprisingly positive.
“The first thing we had to do was to make sure the cancer community was going to embrace the movie. You don’t want to put a movie out there that they are uncomfortable with,” said Nancy Kirkpatrick, president of marketing for Summit Entertainment, the studio behind the film. “We did a really broad screening program so I was expecting to get the emails saying, ‘How can you be so insensitive?’ But we didn’t get any of those.”
“50/50" is based on the screenwriter Will Reiser’s fight against spinal cancer at age 25, and the story is resonating with those who are too old to be considered pediatric oncology patients but too young to share much in common with older adult cancer patients.
While there is a slew of resources targeted at child and older adult cancer patients, those who fall in between, like Reiser, say they’re often at a loss. The medical establishment, they say, is only beginning to recognize their specific needs. This group tends to be the most transient, and the most uninsured. They have specific psychological, physical and financial issues unique to their age.
“Will’s story is the archetype for the story of how much it [stinks] to be sick in your 20s and treated as if you’re in your 60s,” said Zachary, who founded the I’m Too Young for This! Cancer Foundation as a resource for young adults affected by cancer. “ ’50/50' was torn from the pages of my life and I’ve heard that quote from hundreds of other young adults who have seen the film. Whether it’s the doctor who doesn’t make eye contact or the overbearing mom who wants to help, or the girlfriend who abandons you, or the manic hysteric fits of rage, all of it is so accurate.”
Reiser said he never intended to become the poster child for young people with cancer but he is very gratified that his retelling of his experience has connected with so many others in similar situations.
“We were just trying to tell a story that was personal to us and to tell a good story,” said Reiser, who produced the movie with his longtime friend Seth Rogen, who co-stars in the film and was an active part of Reiser’s support group during his treatment.
“The fact that it’s starting a broader conversation, and is helping people who are going through a similar situation, that is really validating.”
Summit initially instituted a series of word-of-mouth screenings with Stand Up to Cancer and Lance Armstrong’s Live- Strong foundation more as a defensive measure than anything geared toward advocacy.
But they were pleasantly surprised when they heard from people like Adams, who started her own young-adult cancer foundation and co-wrote a guidebook for young adults with cancer before merging her efforts with LiveStrong, where she now serves as the foundation’s senior director of engagement.
“I walked out of the screening and wrote an email to Jonathan [Levine, the film’s director] thanking him for finally representing my experience in a way that was real, didn’t pull any punches or dissolve into something soft and politically correct.”
Dr. Stuart Siegel, associate director for pediatric oncology at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, has partnered with Dr. Debu Tripathy to start an adolescent/young adult program at the facility.
It’s a burgeoning area of research, practice and training that he says came to the forefront in 2005 when the national tumor registry published data indicating that this group of patients was not showing much improvement in survival rates, compared with children and older adults.
Siegel, who moderated a post-screening panel with Reiser, Rogen and co-star Anna Kendrick at USC last month, said the film could serve as a useful tool.
“All of the medical students and faculty I talked to after the screening thought it was a wonderful training film, which is unusual for a Hollywood movie. But it really did hit virtually all of the key issues,” said Siegel, referring specifically to how the film addresses interpersonal relationships, sexuality, the pain associated with treatment, and losing friends made during chemo sessions, among other topics.
“The only issue Will didn’t hit was the financial issue, which I asked Will about,” added Siegel. “He told me he had to write his script to pay all his medical debts.”