New on video last week was the critically acclaimed film 50/50, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen. It tells the story of a young man in his twenties, Adam (Gordon-Levitt), diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. As indicated by the title, he has a 50/50 chance of survival, but as you’d expect, there’s a a 100% chance it will impact his life. He passes through the phases of grief in processing the news, while he works to adapt his life and relationships—some more successfully than others.
While it’s not necessarily cancer that we face, many themes in this film are commonly experienced by anyone dealing with a significant diagnosis. The sense of shock, the struggle to adjust life and family systems around it, the pressures it puts on friendships, careers, hopes and dreams. The contemplation of one’s own mortality is always jarring, no matter how it is presented.
I could identify immediately when the doctor first started mumbling out the diagnosis. His disconnected demeanor and incomprehensible vocabulary reminded me much of the doctor that I heard my own diagnosis from. The young patient’s blurred vision and ringing ears perfectly illustrate the dizzying stupor that results from that kind of surprise.
Then begins the process of accepting and sharing the news… The co-workers struggling to find something to say… The girlfriend who is thrown into a situation with lofty expectations... The overbearing mother who wants to care for him… The therapist and others who help him along the way, including some unusual friends he makes at the infusion center. Perhaps most charming of all is his best friend Kyle (Rogen), the quintessential guy-pal who seems to be in denial through the whole process… until we discover he’s been discreetly reading a ‘battling cancer together’ book in his bathroom, and filling it with notes.
The harrowing moment of the film for me came as the patient was being rolled off to surgery. I remember that frightening time all too well, and it was easily the hardest among my treatment stages. The ceilings of so many rooms as I passed through on the gurney. The cold stainless steel room full of masked people talking code. The questions, formalities, and, finally, the critical moment—the anesthesiologist said it was time to go under, and I wondered to myself if I’d ever wake up again. I took a deep breath and said to the room, “Everybody, please do a good job today.”
We all have our personal apprehensions as we face a lifelong disease. While ours may involve different details than a cancer diagnosis, we do share many similar challenges. I’d recommend a viewing of 50/50. It’s heartfelt, it’s funny, and it’s well done. And it tells a story that’s helpful to see—not just for yourself, but to offer your friends and family another perspective on what we go through as patients. And also, perhaps, to help us understand a little more about their challenges too.
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