A most unusual movie screening took place recently at the Landmark Theaters in the Westside Pavilion: a screening of the movie 50/50 that was co-organized by the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital.
The event addressed the issues of cancer treatment and humor as a cancer-fighting agent, vis a vis the film, a black humorous look at a young man's sudden diagnosis of and subsequent battle against cancer, starring Joseph Gordon Levitt as the earnest, quietly brave cancer victim and Seth Rogen as his cynical, sharp-tongued and very funny best friend.
The screening was introduced by the director of USC's Norris Center, Peter A Jones, and the post-movie Q&A was moderated by Doctors Debashish Tripathy and Stuart Siegel, both co-leaders of the Adolescent and Young Adult program at USC Norris, which addresses the needs of adolescents and young adults with cancer. The audience was composed of medical students and cancer survivors — several of those in attendance belonging to both groups — and a smattering of the customary entertainment cognoscenti and members of the press. The Q & A in the theater afterward featured an interesting twist: medical professionals querying comedy professionals — in this case actors Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick and screenwriter and real-life cancer survivor Will Reiser.
“I was originally worried, as producer,” says Rogen “That in making a comedy about cancer, we risked making the worst movie ever.”
The role Rogen plays in the movie closely mirrors the role he played in real life when his good friend Reiser was diagnosed with the disease. “The whole thing was so absurd, it was almost comforting trying to laugh when Will got sick.”
“People really do use a lot of humor to cope with cancer.” says Reiser. “A female friend of mine asked her doctor to call her vagina 'Sarah Palin's Road To Nowhere.' But some people run away from you when you get diagnosed because they don't know how to deal with it.”
Circulating at the gathering afterward were several of the top Norris Center leaders as well as a hand full of medical students who happened to have survived cancer themselves.
“I was in high school at the time I was diagnosed,” says Darren Russell, a current USC medical student who successfully beat Ewen's sarcoma, a bone cancer generally found in children. “And it was the people that I didn't like, that didn't like me, that I wasn't friends with, that would come up and be like: 'How are you doing?,' pretending to be all nice to me and it felt so fake, so forced. For that reason I didn't even want to go out. I had my close friends — that I knew were my real friends — come over and we could joke around and stuff.”
While joking around as a form of emotional — and even physical — relief may vary a lot stylistically between individuals, the use of humor seems a powerful and common thread amongst those who made it through cancer's brutal gauntlet.
“I would dread it when people would come in and make the puppy dog face and feel sorry for me,” says April Ramirez, a physical therapist who had acute T-cell lymphoma leukemia. “My husband's best friend would come in and was like the Seth Rogen character. He would crack me up and I hated him for making me physically hurt so much from the laughing. But it was the best thing that could happen, absolutely.”
“Many people might see this movie as overly dramatized and Hollywoodized.” says Josh Lilienstein, who defeated testicular cancer and is currently a fourth year medical student at USC, planning on going into radiology. “That's not how I see it all. I found it incredibly close to reality. I laughed a lot and threw big cancer parties after my diagnosis. It's a big defense mechanism but it's a healthy defense mechanism.”
Lilienstein cites his particular from of cancer — testicular — as fodder for all kinds of comedy. Suddenly colloquial terms like “dropping the ball,” and “how's it hanging?” took on a new meaning. He and his very supportive family would take photos of themselves lint rolling and duct taping his head to see how easily the hair would come out.
While Lilienstein benefited immensely from first rate cancer care, including repeated surgeries and intensely powerful, drawn-out chemotherapy — as well as $500 anti-nausea pills to help mitigate the disturbing effects of said chemo — he is adamant about the supreme importance of those human, “intangible” resources in defeating such a serious condition.
“Nutrition and other physical lifestyle factors — none of that is important in comparison to your family and social support network,” he says. “The only way I got through a horrific illness is because of a miraculously terrific support network.”
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