Cancer Comedy '50/50' Takes Lighthearted Look at Heavy Diagnosis

Movie starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen shows healing power of humor.

June 1, 2011 — -- There's nothing funny about cancer. But a sense of humor can help people handle the harrowing diagnosis. That's the premise of "50/50," a lighthearted comedy about a heavy topic set to hit theaters this fall.

Given the 50-50 odds of beating cancer, 27-year-old Adam, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, comes to terms with a potentially terminal diagnosis -- but not without the help and hilarity of his best friend Kyle, played by Seth Rogen.

"If you were a casino game you would have the best odds," Kyle says in the movie's trailer, offering some good perspective, perhaps. But for most young adults, cancer and the stats that come with it are terrifying.

"People want to believe in their chance to survive, and I'm not sure statistics will help with that," said Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

As his friends start their adult lives, Adam starts treatment. From shaving his head with Kyle's questionable clippers to munching weed-laced macaroons with fellow chemo patients, his journey captures the joy of life amid the looming possibility of death.

"The whole point of treatment is to allow you to live," said Bea. The challenge, he said, is finding a way to keep living.

"It is so out of synch with the developmental tasks of young adulthood -- when all your friends and siblings are getting married, and jobs and having families and growing up, and you're confronting your own mortality," said Holly Prigerson, director of the Center for Psycho-oncology and Palliative Care Research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. "There must be an enormous sense of alienation and unfairness that younger cancer patients feel particularly."

Adam's therapist, played by Anna Kendrick, tells him that while he can't change his situation, he can change how he chooses to deal with it. That's where humor can be therapeutic -- a good laugh can be a welcome distraction from the pain of cancer.

"Humor is thought to be a very sophisticated coping mechanism," said Bea. "You're going to want to have times when your thoughts drift away from yourself, so you can be in the moment of life rather than calculating life and death all the time."

The movie also chronicles how cancer invades the lives of patients' families and friends.

"We are really uncomfortable with the discomfort of others," Bea said, adding that often patients feel the need to help loved ones cope with the diagnosis. "Often people use humor to make others more comfortable with an uncomfortable situation."

Laughter may be good medicine, but how you get it depends on what makes you laugh. The cancer-comedy combo "won't be everyone's cup of tea," Bea said.

"Comedy is always pushing the boundaries," he said. "It always walks the line; it's so close to tragedy."

The movie is written by Will Reiser and is based on his own battle with cancer. Prigerson, who's also an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said patients might find "comfort in knowing that others have shared the experience, that they are not alone."

And while "50/50" may be full of laughs, the trailer suggests there will be no shortage of tears.

"I doubt anyone will watch this flick for the laughs. That said, it is probably refreshing for cancer patients not to be in a perpetual state of gloom and doom," Prigerson said. "There are proven pluses to coping with humor."