From dramas to comedies, 7 films that explore living with cancer

They may not all be feel-good films, but they are rewarding

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Terms Of Endearment,  Shirley Maclaine,  Debra Winger
Film and Television

With statistics suggesting that one in four people will get cancer in their lifetime, it's only natural that the disease has made its way on to the big screen.

Since the 1930s, dozens of films have dealt with the illness and its effects in both dramatic and, at times, humorous ways.

No matter the treatment, many of these movies have something to offer when it comes to puncturing some of the myths surrounding the disease. If anything, they show us that just talking about it can help both patients and families.

Here are seven diverse movies that tackle cancer in various rewarding ways.

1. ‘Terms of Endearment’ (1983)

An Oscar-winning tale of family and sacrifice.

Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger put in career best performances as a mother and daughter whose testy relationship has always teetered on the brink of collapse. It is only when an unsuspecting illness arrives that their healing process begins. As powerful as it is funny, Terms of Endearment works because it is never maudlin. Through a script mixing humour and heartache, it's a rewarding look at how a cancer diagnosis can breed resilience and insight in equal measure.

2. ‘Cries & Whispers’ (1972)

A stark classic by Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman.

Set in the early 20th century, the film follows three sisters who reside in a ghostly mansion. When their quiet existence is shattered by news that one of the siblings, Agnes, has terminal cancer, the pent up resentment, anguish and suffering of the household comes to the fore.

Full of gothic imagery and an evocative dream sequence, the film explores emotions that are all too real.

3. ‘The Doctor’ (1991)

A film where the doctor gets a taste of his own medicine.

Loosely based on a true story, the film follows Jack McKee (William Hurt), a successful surgeon with a prickly bedside manner. After his coughing fits lead to a throat cancer diagnosis, McKee experiences life as a patient and realises effective treatment is as much psychological as medical. A modest success upon its release, Hurt carries the film with a performance nuanced enough to keep it from being too melodramatic.

4. ‘50/50’ (2011)

A risky concept that pays off.

Joseph Gordon Levitt and Seth Rogen provide strong performances as friends Adam and Kyle.

When the former is diagnosed with cancer of the spine, the duo's dynamic changes as Kyle joins Adam in support groups and therapy. The film treads the fine line between buddy comedy and pathos, but tells an important story about male vulnerability.

5. 'Marvin’s Room' (1996)

A tough but ultimately rewarding family drama.

Based on the award-winning play, the films looks at how an unexpected illness can upend long entrenched family dynamics. After learning her sister and father's care-giver Bessie (Diane Keaton) has leukaemia, prodigal daughter Lee (Meryl Streep) returns home to pick up the family responsibilities she spent 20 years avoiding.

Blessed with an all-star cast, including strong performances by a 22-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, Marvin's Room is a poignant film about how unexpected tragedies can lead to insight and ultimately, forgiveness.

6. ‘Stepmom’ (1998)

In addition to the trauma that comes with news of cancer, there is also the regret of a life that could have been.

These are the twin themes explored in this Oscar-nominated film. With an A-list cast lead by Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts, the former plays stay at home mum Jackie, while Roberts is ambitious young photographer Isabelle, who also happens to be Jackie’s ex-husband's new girlfriend.

When Jackie is told she has cancer, she is subsumed by anger until some grace and acceptance arrives. While not necessarily innovative, Step Mom does a solid job in delving into the often dark emotions that comes from a sudden cancer diagnosis.

7. ‘Ordinary Love’ (2019)

A beautiful British production due to its down-to-earth approach.

Joan and Tom (Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson) are a seasoned couple who enjoy the simple things such as afternoon strolls and fishing.

Their quiet comfort becomes sorely tested when Joan discovers she has breast cancer and begins the medical appointments and gruelling treatments that comes in its wake. From arguments about various treatments and the notion of what "cancer-free" means, you get a sense these are discussion shared by ordinary families touched by the illness.

The message here, ultimately, is that while cancer can be a game changer, it doesn't have to mean life doesn't go on.