At age 24, Will Reiser started to have some back pain and lose weight. After what I am sure most of us would consider way too long a time, he was evaluated and diagnosed with a neurofibrosarcoma. After some upfront treatment, his disease was resected and he is, by all reports, doing well. Sounds like a nice story…
The difference is that Will is a writer and was trying to develop his first feature screenplay. He turned his experience into the film “50/50” starring Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Seth Rogan. Interestingly enough, Rogan plays the role in the film that he played in real-life; the best friend of the protagonist.
I wanted to bring this film to the attention of the oncology community because it provides a very interesting and unique perspective about our patients. I, only half jokingly, say that dealing with patients younger than myself is way more difficult. Part of that is the reflection of my own potential mortality but another part is the increasing difficulty I have with identifying with issues younger patients may have. It is no longer my life or way of looking at things.
The film shows a number of interesting aspects to his care and his life beyond the clinic. The initial Oncology consult may get a few of our hackles up with the rather detached and gruff way the physician is presented. In all honesty, however, after our patients first hear they have cancer or even a recurrence, do you really think they are the most noticing of our efforts to be supportive and empathetic? Fortunately the film doesn’t worry about the specifics of the treatment so we don’t get the “out” of dismissing the film due to scientific errors.
The life beyond his medical care was the most interesting to me. His “girlfriend” is played, to some extent, as a less than wonderful person. As I put myself in her shoes, though, it is easy to see the difficult situation she is in. She is in a fairly new relationship at a young age. There is no real commitment or permanency to things yet and she is suddenly faced with having to help care with the worst our therapies can put someone through. I can’t really fault her for having a tough time continuing with that.
His best friend is his best support. The title of this piece comes from the response Rogan gives when the lead says he was given a 50/50 chance. It rings true. He also get support from the other patients getting treated, even though they have a good number of years on him. It had to be difficult to be amongst the youngest people in a chemo room.
The film does an especially nice job at illustrating the struggles he faces with his own self-image. A guy in his twenties who is now single should be out there meeting others and making new relationships, right? How hard must that be when you spend a lot of your days vomiting, fatigued, and suffering any number of other complications from our best attempts to help? Do you mention your disease? How do you explain the hair (or lack of)? The film hits all of these notes well yet still gets a good number of laughs.
I would encourage you to take a look at this film. It’s not overly dark (should I say not Bergman-esque?) but it does have a lot of serious truths. It has changed how I approach my younger patients. I still won’t ask where the young guys get the clippers to cut their hair, though.