1. Terms Of Endearment (1983)
Terms Of Endearment has maintained its place in the tearjerker pantheon as not just a cancer film, but the cancer film of the past 25-plus years. Where its lesser predecessors like 1970’s Love Story trafficked in cheesy melodrama (“Love means never having to say you’re sorry”), Terms Of Endearment offered a more believable portrayal of the strained-but-loving relationship between mother Shirley MacLaine and daughter Debra Winger. It helps that the film—based on the Larry McMurtry novel, and adapted by director James L. Brooks—focuses on their relationship, not Winger’s unexpected illness. When that arrives in the third act, it doesn’t change the gravitational center of the film so much as continue the theme. Terms Of Endearment is still brutal, though. There’s a reason Michael Gore’s unmistakable score still hits people in the gut 27 years later.
2. Sufjan Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day” (2005)
The best song on Sufjan Stevens’ excellent Illinois is, by no coincidence, also its most gutting. On “Casimir Pulaski Day” (a Polish-American holiday celebrated mostly in Illinois), Stevens recounts a friend/potential love interest’s life with (and eventual death from) bone cancer: It’s a gorgeously spare elegy that backs simple lyrics with banjo and horns, which makes lines like “In the morning when you finally go / And the nurse runs in with her head hung low / And the cardinal hits the window” all the more crushing.
3. Wit (2001)
A 2001 TV movie too good even for HBO, this Mike Nichols adaptation of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-winning play Wit casts Emma Thompson as a brilliant, arrogant John Donne scholar dying of ovarian cancer. Nearing the end, she tries to make sense of a life lived in the service of and understood through words. As she dies, she lets her mind wander a twisty, circular path from The Runaway Bunny to “Death Be Not Proud.” It leads to one inescapable destination, but there’s kindness and comfort along the way for those who can use language to see beyond the veil of appearances. To date, Wit remains Edson’s only produced play. She now works as a kindergarten teacher, a career she began prior to her Pulitzer win in 1999.
4. Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, Our Cancer Year (1994)
Harvey Pekar’s early-’90s bout with lymphoma doesn’t even overtake Our Cancer Year’s true-life story until almost a third of the way in, and before long, Joyce Brabner (Pekar’s wife and incredibly frank co-author) and probably most readers grow weary of how often Pekar collapses on the floor claiming that his chemotherapy has paralyzed his legs, or how he insists on going back to work in spite of all the sick days he’s saved up. It’s an unsparing, nearly suffocating read, and relief comes via some of the blackest, most wretched comedy ever committed to panels. After Pekar gets a special “tattoo” for radiation treatment, Brabner jokes that she’ll now have an easier time identifying his body if he ever dies in a car crash. The spiritual triumph in Our Cancer Year is that a couple can not only hold onto love through such a crushing challenge, they can also hold onto their knack for being huge pains in the ass to each other.
5. The Tom Green Cancer Special (2000)
When Tom Green found out he had testicular cancer and needed immediate surgery, he didn’t retreat into private depression. Instead, he got the MTV cameras rolling for The Tom Green Cancer Special, which follows him through two surgeries, including the removal of a testicle. (Naturally, Green’s sidekick Glenn Humplik gets to poke and prod at the excised bits. “Jeez,” he exclaims. “It looks like chicken!”) It’s a harrowing hourlong trip in which Green is clearly scared, but never stops joking around. It ends with him saying, “That’s our show. Hopefully my cancer won’t come back, and I won’t die.” Keep it simple.
6. Ikiru (1952)
The opening shot of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru sets up what could be a font of sentimental, manipulative tear-jerking: A chest X-ray showing a thick white mass sits under a voiceover explaining that our future hero, empty bureaucrat Takashi Shimura, has cancer. But what follows isn’t typical: While Kurosawa hits some of the clichés that mark this kind of film (grabbing life by the horns and mending a sad life on borrowed time), and explicitly states the moral several times (“We only realize how beautiful life is when we chance upon death”), Watanabe has a remarkably tough time affecting anyone. Knowing he has a few months to live, he samples late-night benders, creeps out a young woman, and botches telling his son about his impending death. Mixed in are tight close-ups of Shimura’s strained face as he fails to connect; he smiles only a few times throughout the film, lending it a real sense of unease, and endearing himself to audiences while failing to have the same effect onscreen. Shimura’s creeped-out muse finally sets him straight more than halfway through the film, sending him away to do something meaningful. His final five months are relayed through a bunch of drunken, fighting bureaucrats at his wake, and while they shrug off his legacy, we end up sticking up for our dead hero, hoping they’ll see what we’ve seen: a lonely, thoughtful man, full of sorrow and dreaming.
7. Joe Jackson, “Cancer” (1982)
Over a groovy Latin beat, Joe Jackson’s piano beats out a syncopated, hauntingly modal chord sequence. “Everything gives you cancer,” the cynical singer-songwriter intones. It’s an anthem for the ’80s, when all those messages from the Surgeon General were starting to sink in. “No caffeine, no protein, no booze or nicotine”; everything pleasurable is forbidden. Even the moderation the singer recommends—“Don’t work hard, don’t play hard, don’t plan for the graveyard”—won’t save you: “There’s no cure, there’s no answer.” Jackson laments the intrusion of the medical profession into all lifestyle choices: “Don’t touch that dial / don’t try to smile / just take this pill / it’s in your file.” When it’s our turn to go, we want Jackson by our side pounding out that vicious solo in the bridge.
8. Funny People (2009)
Which is stronger: the incomparable comedic wackiness of Adam Sandler, or the harrowing fear and suffering associated with cancer? Judd Apatow’s Funny People, finally put this timeless philosophical question to the test. Unsurprisingly, the result proves a draw—Sandler is still funny in the role of asshole movie star George Simmons, but his character’s leukemia diagnosis causes America’s favorite man-child to ponder the kinds of Big Questions—Who am I? What is love? What happens when you die?—that probably never occurred to Billy Madison. But even without cancer, Simmons is the most refreshingly adult role of Sandler’s career. Cancer threatens to makes Simmons a better man, which somewhat undermines the best part of Funny People, Sandler’s fearless portrayal of a jaded big shot whose status allows him to be an unrepentant prick to his many underlings.
9. Cries And Whispers (1972)
Watching a family member die of cancer is about as awful an experience as there is. It’s something no person would submit to voluntarily, but if for some reason you’re jonesing for a taste of the worst life has to offer, Ingmar Bergman’s supremely painful 1972 masterpiece Cries And Whispers is out there waiting to make you feel terrible. Stars Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin are almost too real as the sisters of endlessly suffering cancer patient Harriet Andersson, who stand by helplessly as she slowly drifts toward death. Bergman ups the ante by giving the sisters their own set of crippling personal demons. In fact, Thulin is so miserable and suicidal that her cancer-stricken sibling might not even be the most disturbing element of the film.
10. Tyce Diorio on So You Think You Can Dance (2009)
It’s all but guaranteed that when a choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance presents a dance with a Serious Message—addiction, birth, death—the audience members, choreographers, dancers, and judges will be left in tears. It’s what happens when you add extra weight to an already extremely emotive medium. So it was fairly predictable that Tyce Diorio’s season-five dance about a friend dealing with breast cancer would get the waterworks going: It’s choreographed to “This Woman’s Work,” after all, a song that can make just about anybody cry. It helps, too, that it’s a beautiful routine, performed by two of that season’s strongest contestants, conveying the patient’s fragility, strength, and anger. Sometimes you have to cry a little, even when the tears feel deliberately wrenched out of you.
11. The Office, “Michael’s Birthday” (2006)
What’s more important than supporting a co-worker while he’s waiting to find out if he has skin cancer? Well, if you’re The Office’s Michael Scott, the answer is obvious: Michael Scott’s birthday. In the second-season episode “Michael’s Birthday,” he watches in increasing frustration as the Dunder-Mifflin staff rallies around hapless accountant Kevin while he awaits a phone call from his doctor, rather than joining Michael in eating baloney sub sandwiches, signing his birthday poster, and admiring his one-of-a-kind Bulgarian suit. Even Michael helpfully pointing out that 98 percent of all people recover from skin cancer isn’t enough to lighten the mood, so he takes the crew to the ice rink to take Kevin’s mind off things as they skate underneath a “Happy Birthday Michael” banner. Though Kevin’s diagnosis turns out negative, the specter of his cancer throws Michael’s innate selfishness into especially sharp relief as he struggles to appear sympathetic without letting go of the childlike belief that the only person who matters on his birthday is him.
12. Battlestar Galactica, “Epiphanies” (2006)
Sabotage, terrorist attacks, attempted feticide: There’s a lot of high drama in “Epiphanies,” and at the center of it all lies a bedridden leader succumbing to late-stage cancer. President Roslin’s hospital-bed hallucinations frame the unusually melodramatic episode, as she flashes back to the moments leading up to the attack on the 12 colonies—and, in the episode’s climax, gleans some devastating information about Vice President Baltar’s role in the genocide. In her more lucid moments, she also orders the termination of a half-human fetus growing inside an imprisoned Cylon—a fetus that turns out to be the deus ex machina that saves her.
13. Curb Your Enthusiasm, “Funkhouser’s Crazy Sister” and “Vehicular Fellatio” (2009)
Real-life Larry David pushed his semi-fictional counterpart into some extreme depths of assholery over Curb Your Enthusiasm’s first six seasons, but it wasn’t until the first two episodes of the seventh that we saw just how low he could go. Luckily, it’s pretty funny down there at the bottom of the barrel, as Larry attempts to squirm out of his relationship with Loretta, first before she’s actually diagnosed with cancer, then after she turns into a patient from hell who’s incapable of even changing the TV channel without assistance—or, more accurately, unwilling to. Predictably, his methods of extraction go cringingly, hilariously awry.
14. Mom’s Cancer (2006)
Using simple language, classically cartoony images, and not a hint of sugarcoating, Brian Fies’ 2006 graphic novel—first published as a webcomic—chronicles his colorful mother’s long struggle with lung cancer. It’s both an involving look at one woman’s battle with disease and a useful guide for what someone undergoing treatment for cancer can expect, both physically and mentally. (Sadly, while Fies’ mom did beat cancer, she later died of side effects related to the drugs used to treat her.)
15. Cleó From 5 To 7 (1962)
In Agnès Varda’s 1962 feature Cléo From 5 To 7, the possibility of cancer snaps the hazy life of a young woman into sharp focus. Corinne Marchand plays the wonderfully named Cleó Victoire, a pop star not naturally inclined to self-reflection, but forced to engage in it as she awaits the results of a biopsy. Varda doesn’t cheat the title, limiting the action to the time between five and seven, and making the importance of that time count as the character shifts from superficial worries to some profound revelations about her life and those around her. Without losing the gravity of the situation, Varda keeps the spirit playful, working in a high New Wave style influenced by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard—who cameos alongside Anna Karina, Eddie Constantine, and Michel Legrand—but employing a spirit and working out concerns all her own.
16. Eels, Electro-Shock Blues (1998)
Mark Oliver Everett’s father suffered a fatal heart attack in 1982, when Everett was 19, and then a decade later, his sister committed suicide and his mother died of lung cancer. Everett’s album Electro-Shock Blues (his second with his band Eels) is all about death, decay, and loneliness, and deals specifically with his memories of his mother’s decline in songs like the stark “Dead Of Winter.” But it’s also an album about how the extremes of pain and despair are really just a few degrees removed from the kind of shit everyone goes through day after day, which means it’s just a few degrees removed from the beautiful parts of life, too. In Everett’s estimation, we need the shadows to define the light.
17. Marisa Acocella Marchetto, Cancer Vixen: A True Story (2006)
Marisa Acocella was a cartoonist known for her fashionably wry and urbane work for The New Yorker and The New York Times before she was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 40s. That also happened to be the same time she was gearing up to get married for the first time, to a dreamboat Italian restaurateur who owned a hotspot near Soho. That’s where the last name Marchetto entered in, and that’s what gives Cancer Vixen a good amount of its humane warmth. The graphic novel tells the story of Marchetto’s diagnosis and recovery in a frank, searching fashion, with an instructive look into the process—how chemotherapy works, how not having health insurance sucks, etc.—that comes across as invitingly light thanks to Marchetto’s lively drawing style. The story feels exceptionally lived-in, and it serves as a useful quickie resource with a lot of information on tap.
18. Breaking Bad (2008-)
The life-threatening illness as inspiration for great works isn’t a new concept, but the assumption has generally been that inspiration, no matter how dire the cause, is a good thing. Breaking Bad goes in a different direction. When high-school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) learns he has lung cancer, he decides to make as much money as he can before dying, for the sake of his wife, son, and unborn child. He does this by applying his science training to the production of crystal meth, and, as has become readily apparent with each season, that decision is less about protecting his family and more about White letting out years of repressed rage over a lost, impotent life. White’s cancer, currently in remission, is an excuse for an increasingly self-centered and destructive course; a good diagnosis became cause for alarm in one episode. At this point, it’s impossible to tell whether the cancer or his own blind arrogance will get White in the end. Until that question is resolved, the series remains a thrilling reminder that the less a man has to lose, the more he’s willing to risk.
19. House, “Wilson” (2009)
House has never been uncomfortable about death. While its misanthropic leading man usually manages to find the solution to even the most obscure diseases in the final minutes of each episode, sometimes people can’t be rescued. Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), Dr. Gregory House’s best friend is an oncologist who deals with that kind of death every day, but he’s never lost his empathy. That’s why “Wilson,” a sixth-season episode that tells its story from the titular character’s perspective, is such a refreshing change of pace for the series. Leonard, a strong actor in a role that usually leaves him on the sidelines, is given a chance to show off the struggles and drama at Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, and he rises to the occasion admirably. The mundane tragedies of hospital work allow for a contrast between House’s cynicism and Wilson’s openness, and the results are surprisingly even-handed.
20. Brian’s Song (1971)
The true story of Brian Piccolo’s battle with cancer and the Chicago Bears fullback’s groundbreaking friendship with tailback Gale Sayers is more than just a gridiron spin on Bang The Drum Slowly. As played by James Caan, Piccolo is both a kick-ass cancer patient and a hell of a guy, looking past his teammates’ race, the threat to his job security, and his own disease-ridden body, while putting himself on the line day after day like a real man. When Sayers (played by Billy Dee Williams) testifies to his friend’s courage at the end of the movie, the speech makes grown men weep, not just because it’s a tribute to the dying, but because it’s a salute to the true-blue dude so many of us wish to be.
21. Man On The Moon (1999)
Milos Forman’s Andy Kaufman biopic was mostly noted for the startling accuracy of Jim Carrey’s impersonation/incarnation of the comedian. But Man On The Moon is less a conventional biopic than an interrogation of biopics. Recapping Kaufman’s greatest hits without trying to get into his head or explain him, Moon treats Kaufman’s life as he treated his performances: As if they were bizarro performance art, with the performer’s thoughts and intentions inaccessible. Even Kaufman’s death from cancer is treated ambiguously, with the finale suggesting it might have been his ultimate prank. It’s an appropriately hands-off approach for a distant person.
22. Warren Zevon on The Late Show With David Letterman (2002)
Warren Zevon had been a frequent guest on both of David Letterman’s late-night shows over the years, and the two formed a bond based on mutual admiration. When Zevon learned he had terminal cancer, he shared his last days with his fans via the lovely, elegiac album The Wind and a documentary about its recording. He also went on The Late Show With David Letterman on October 30th, 2002, about 11 months before he died, to tell Letterman and his viewers what he’d learned about himself and about life since receiving his diagnosis. In keeping with Zevon’s mordant music—and Letterman’s lifelong appreciation of it—their conversation was funny and frank, not shying away from Zevon’s past misbehavior or the intimations of mortality that had long been part of his songs. Even the most famous line from the interview—Zevon’s comment that impending death has taught him to “enjoy every sandwich”—doesn’t come off as corny or maudlin. It’s an honest, unstudied response to an honest question. No pussyfooting around.
23. The Fountain (2006)
Darren Aronofsky’s ambitious science-fiction/fantasy epic The Fountain ranges from the 16th-century Mayan empire to the far reaches of the galaxy in the year 2500, but the heart of the piece is set in the present day, where Hugh Jackman (who plays the hero in all three segments) fights to cure the brain tumor killing his wife Rachel Weisz (who plays the love interest in all three segments). Aronofsky has said that The Fountain was conceived in reaction to his own parents’ cancer diagnoses, as a meditation on how the loved ones of the terminally ill struggle to understand mortality while the dying come to accept their fate as part of the natural order. Though Aronofsky has some difficulty articulating everything on his mind—perhaps because the production of The Fountain was shut down, then relaunched at half its original budget—the movie is often beautiful and profound in the way it grapples with our eternal yearning to win a lasting victory over death.
24. The Antlers, Hospice (2009)
The story of a psychologically scarring relationship that unfolds in and out of a children’s cancer ward, The Antlers’ Hospice is based on Peter Silberman’s personal experiences. Though the singer has been reticent about sharing details, they were unnerving enough that Silberman spent 18 months in self-imposed isolation to work through them. That’s because watching a loved one die can’t be reduced to simple emotions: It’s heartbreaking, yes, but also incredibly frustrating, particularly when that loved one (in this case, a child/woman named “Sylvia”) is more vituperative than vulnerable, lashing out at the people trying to ease her suffering, and preferring to spend her days in a dreamy morphine haze rather than dealing with the ugly realities of being awake. As Sylvia’s relationship with Silberman’s narrator evolves from caretaking to codependency, she makes sure he suffers right along with her. That persists even after she’s gone: In “Epilogue,” he reveals that she still visits him in nightmares, where she’s “in that hospital bed, being buried quite alive now / I’m trying to dig you out, but all you want is to be buried there together.” That desperation, so familiar to anyone who’s dealt with someone diagnosed with a terminal disease, makes the record a haunting rejoinder to the usual party line, which equates surviving cancer as a matter of faith. As those who have lived through it can attest, it’s far more complicated than that.
25. The Room (2003)
When some future scientist finally discovers what’s going on in Tommy Wiseau’s disastrous cult flick The Room, perhaps its most ridiculous scene will make sense. In it, the woman playing Wiseau’s girlfriend’s mother declares offhandedly, “I got the results of the test back. I definitely have breast cancer.” It’s the first and last time her cancer is mentioned in The Room; maybe it’s just a metaphor for the emotional pain that the main character feels. Or maybe Wiseau actually had no idea how to make a movie.