Chemo Style on the Big Screen: Top 10 Picks for Cancer Movies
Editor’s Note: This article was originally written by patient expert Michelle Kung.
From Ali McGraw’s unapologizing romantic in “Love Story” to Debra Winger’s wise-cracking daughter and mother of three in “Terms of Endearment,” movie cancer patients usually die a beautifully poignant and peaceful death, or else, are so sick, they are beyond treatment and simply count down the days before they pass.
Reality, however, is far more messy. Tumors need treatment, family members need counseling, and most prevalently, patients need chemotherapy. Given its preference for terminal illnesses, Hollywood often skips depicting the ugliness of chemo aftereffects – the vomiting, the shivering, the dry heaving, the moaning in agony – so when thoughtful filmmakers actually take the time to infuse their cancer patients with confidence and courage, they produce honest characters whose personality and individual style shine through the pain.
The following ten films all feature intrepid chemo patients who demonstrate their beauty both internally and externally.
The Doctor (1991)
In this adaptation of Ed Rosenbaum’s memoir “A Taste of My Own Medicine,” William Hurt stars as Jack MacKee, a cocky surgeon who is cut down a notch after being diagnosed with throat cancer. Frustrated by the inefficiencies of his own hospital, MacKee is calmed down by and ultimately inspired by fellow patient June Ellis (Elizabeth Perkins). Suffering herself from a stage four brain tumor, June encourages MacKee to reconnect with his family and patients, all the while modeling snazzy headgear – including a sequined and embroidered scarf, blacks hats, pink wool knits – representative of her enlightened spirit.
Dying Young (1991)
Isolated art student Victor Geddes (Campbell Scott) has been battling leukemia for a decade, but it’s not until he hires drifter Hilary O’Neil (Julia Roberts) as his nurse and companion that he finds, yes, a reason to keep living. Hailing from a wealthy family, Geddes knows how to bust out with a sharp black beret for fine dining.
Marvin’s Room (1996)
Before she developed breast cancer in 2005’s “The Family Stone,” Diane Keaton endured chemo as a leukemia patient in this adaptation of Scott McPherson’s play. In need of a blood marrow transplant, Keaton’s Bessie makes contact with her estranged sister Lee (Meryl Streep), who just happens to be a recent graduate of cosmetology school. After the siblings reconcile, Leigh restyles Bessie’s hausfrau wig, giving her sister a snazzy, empowering new look.
One True Thing (1998)
After undergoing chemo for her unidentified cancer, Meryl Streep’s uber-homemaker Kate must lay down her spatula and decorative mosaic tiles, and allow her career-oriented daughter Ellen (Renee Zellweger) to take over running the household. To keep herself and her family in good cheer, Kate models a variety of headgear - ranging from blue knit caps, green turbans, and a holly-patterned hat for Christmas – to match the occasion.
Patch Adams (1998)
In this saccharine drama, Robin Williams stars as real-life doctor Hunter “Patch” Adams, a formerly suicidal medic turned inspirational healer. A believer in the palliative power of laughter, the doc cheers up a ward of bald chemotherapy patients by dressing as a clown. In turn, the children boldly don red sponge noses when Patch must defend this practice in court, when he is almost expelled from medical school.
After Susan Sarandon’s mother of two Jackie Harrison is diagnosed with cancer, she realizes she must overcome her bitterness toward her ex-husband’s new girlfriend (Julia Roberts) and teach her how to become a proper parent to her two children. Though Jackie’s chemotherapy treatments are portrayed as unusually benign, she still manages to capture the deep sadness she feels in feeling her family behind.
Blow Dry (2001)
In an ironic stroke, hairdresser and ex-hair model Shelly (Natasha Richardson) is forced to style her own wigs to cover up her hair loss after her lung cancer returns for a third (and presumably, last) time. Luckily, she’s not the only coiffeur in the family. After ten years of not speaking to her ex-husband (Alan Rickman), she lulls him into picking up his competition shears again. Together with their son and her new female lover, Shelly wins the British Hairdressing Championship with her family.
In director Mike Nichols’ unflinching adaptation of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Emma Thompson plays Professor Vivian Bearing, a John Donne scholar diagnosed with stage four metastatic ovarian cancer. Ordered to undergo eight rounds of experimental chemo at “full dosage,” she is forced to rely on her wry humor and bald-head covering baseball cap to get her through the worst.
Pieces Of April (2003)
Many chemo patients opt for wigs to cover their inevitable hair loss, and no character captures the black humor of maintaining the hated hairpiece more than Patricia Clarkson as leukemia patient Joy in this comi-tragic film. While driving to a Thanksgiving dinner cooked by her estranged daughter (Katie Holmes), Joy’s nausea forces her family to stop at a restroom every few miles, and in one, the wig flops into the toilet.
Based on Geralyn Lucas’ life story, this surprisingly touching Lifetime movie features “Scrubs’” Sarah Chalke as a 28-year-old editor whose career as a TV news journalist is finally taking off when she’s diagnosed with breast cancer. To combat her fear of chemo, she always applies a bright coat of red lipstick before going to her treatment, explaining that only confident women wear red lipstick.