'The Fault in Our Stars' Praised and Feared For Realism

How a movie involving teen cancer can help real-life teens with the disease.

June 13, 2014— -- “The Fault in Our Stars” is earning praise for its realism. But that same realism has some cancer survivors steering clear of the summer blockbuster, whose protagonist promises to tell “the truth” about her “sad story.”

On the cancer ward at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, only a few patients have read the 2012 book on which the movie was based. The rest aren’t ready to pick it up or watch the film, which features actress Shailene Woodley as Hazel Lancaster, a 17-year-old with terminal thyroid cancer.

“I think it really depends where they are in the diagnosis,” said Melissa Sexton, a child life specialist at the hospital. “For some, it’s a little too close to home. They don’t even want to say the word ‘cancer,’ because they have had no opportunity for it to sink in.”

On the Facebook page for Stupid Cancer, a non-profit organization for young adults who have or have had cancer, some called the film’s accuracy “unbearable,” while others said it allowed them a “healthy cry.”

Those willing to relive their darkest moments through “The Fault in Our Stars” said they were rewarded with a protagonist that had cancer but wasn’t defined by it. Yes, Hazel Lancaster had to live with the reality that the disease would kill her someday. But the audience could see that there was more to her than that. This, they said, was something they could relate to.

“We’re human beings, not just somebody you label as ‘You have cancer,’” said Alexis Hodges, a 19-year-old who survived leukemia when she was 13. “For the longest time, to the whole city of Norton, [Ohio] my name was Lexie Hodges, but they were like, ‘That’s the girl who has cancer.’”

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Hodges, a former patient at Akron Children’s Hospital, who still attends support groups, won a contest to appear in “The Fault in Our Stars” as an extra. She said the actors met with her and other cancer survivors during filming last summer to ask questions about how to play their roles more authentically.

Hodges has already seen the movie twice, she said. When she saw it with her friends, she said they cried and asked her if her cancer experience was anything like the movie.

Though her diagnosis was different from Hazel’s, Hodges said she could relate to the character’s health scares, having been rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night on more than one occasion. Hodges underwent chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant – treatments that carried a 30 percent chance of survival, she said.

“I think the movie was brutally honest in a way,” Hodges said. “At any second, something can go wrong, but you still carry on and have a life knowing a day or two from now, two days from now, something could happen.”

One of the things Stupid Cancer founder Matthew Zachary said he found refreshing about film was that cancer didn’t provide “tear-jerker shock value” as it has in other movies and books. Instead, the main character tells the audience she won’t “sugar coat” the story. “This is the truth,” she says in the movie.

Another real-life cancer survivor, 17-year-old Hope Banghart, began reading “the Fault in Our Stars” by John Green on long drives to and from the hospital for follow-up appointments about a year after she went into remission for leukemia. She said she counts it among her favorite books.

“Yeah, books and movies have had teens with cancer before,” she said, citing “My Sister’s Keeper” and “A Walk to Remember.” “They don’t give a good perspective as to what the actual teen with cancer is feeling. I felt like ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ really gave a great perspective… Everything you would think would go through a girl’s mind goes through her mind. It doesn’t process the same way. It gives people a better understanding of the uniqueness that comes from a situation like this.”

As Hope and her mother watched the movie, they turned to one another to laugh at a cancer-themed inside joke: a character in the film makes fun of Hazel for using her one dying wish to go to Disney World through a fictional version of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Hope’s mother said she and Hope had the same conversation a few years earlier, around the time that Hope was given a 20 to 30 percent chance of survival.

“I’ve heard Hope say before that she thought it was important for her friends to read [the book] so they could understand where she is coming from,” Hope’s mother, Debbie Banghart, said. “Some friends have a hard time finding something to talk about, just trying to be friends. It [‘The Fault in Our Stars’] gives a good perspective of what it’s like to be that kid.”

Hope agreed, saying some friends had an easier time being supportive than others during her illness.

“Other friends were too scared to talk to me. They thought they would disturb me. They didn’t know what to say,” she said. “The book gives a better perspective on how the different treatment people give you because you have cancer makes more of an impact than you think it would.”

Zachary of Stupid Cancer said he’s pleased to see young adult cancer appear in pop culture, even if it has some misguided teens wishing aloud for cancer in movie theaters in the hopes of finding love – a gaff some people in the cancer community have reported overhearing.

“Even though 94 percent of people who get cancer are over 60, we’re talking about people getting cancer who aren’t babies and aren’t 60,” he said.

Zachary said teens with cancer need to think about losing their hair, their fertility and their lives, and portraying that honestly is a huge help to the patient community. “It’s hard enough being a teen,” he said. “It’s hard enough being 21 and just getting your life in order.”