'50/50' And Cancer: Can Humor Help Us Heal?

"Have you ever seen 'Terms of Endearment'?"

That's how 27-year-old Adam (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) breaks the news of his diagnosis to his on-screen worrywart mom Diane (Anjelica Huston) over dinner in the new film "50/50." The line takes the cake for how-not-to-tell-your-mother-you-have-cancer.

"I'm moving in," Diane replies.

"No, Mom, no."

"I'm your mother, Adam."


"50/50," also starring Seth Rogen and directed by Jonathan Levine, is out in theaters Friday, Sept. 30 -- and, yup, it's a comedy. About cancer.

The film (originally titled with the slightly more jarring "I'm With Cancer") is inspired by the true-life story of screenwriter Will Reiser's battle with cancer.

"We worked with Will on Da Ali G show, and it was shortly after that we learned he was sick," Rogen, a real-life friend of Reiser, says on the film's website. "As shocking, sad, confusing and generally screwed up as it was, we couldn't ignore that because we were so ill-equipped to deal with the situation, funny things kept happening."

And funny it is. After Adam receives his (comically hard to pronounce) diagnosis of a malignant, fast growing back tumor, Rogen's character Kyle comforts his friend by reminding him of stars who have beat cancer (Seth Green, Lance Armstrong and ... Patrick Swayze -- scratch that) and making an argument that if he were a Las Vegas game, his heads-or-tails odds would be the best in the house. We see the bleak reality of Adam's cancer ward through the colorful lens of medical-marijuana-laced macaroons and watch as the two friends play the "cancer card" to pick up girls.

In a movie genre where the Kleenex are typically more plentiful than the belly laughs, "50/50" is anything but expected or melodramatic -- yet it poses the question of whether it's okay to find humor in life's tragedies, especially those we firmly understand are no laughing matter.

"Having a comedic approach to cancer makes the experience feasible," Hollye Harrington Jacobs, who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year at the age of 39, told The Huffington Post. "Finding humor is absolutely, positively, 100 percent therapeutic."

Jacobs, also a HuffPost blogger, says she encouraged humor throughout her treatment process, which has included a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. "Often, I found that my life was comedy of the absurd in that one thing after the other happened," she says. "And I kept laughing."

Turns out, that approach can be a healthy one.

"[Humor] is sort of social lubricant and a relief of tension and a way of coping," Richard Penson, M.D., assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and clinical director of Medical Gynecologic Oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital, told The Huffington Post. "It's not just the funny people who use humor in oncology. Better practitioners often use humor as a very sophisticated support."

In fact, a recent study out of Northwestern University found that doctors across a variety of practices may find that using a bit of light humor can help to relieve anxiety and keep the focus on recovery.

Penson cautions that humor is high-risk -- it could offend someone who is going through a tough time. But anecdotal evidence, as seen in both Reiser's real-life experience and his film adaptation, suggests teens and young adults may be the most open to incorporating humor of the type he describes as "gallows humor" or "so awful it's funny."

In a 2009 Newsweek piece, following the release of the cancer dramedy predecessor, "Funny People," writer Iva Skoch explored that idea of gallows humor. Skoch was a young, athletic nonsmoker who was diagnosed with colon cancer. After an ironically humorous run-in with a woman on the subway (read the anecdote here), Skoch wrote:

Cancer. Hilarious. I later typed these words into Google and found Kaylin Andres, a 24-year-old San Francisco fashion designer who was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer normally found in children, last September. She uses her blog, Cancer Is Hilarious, to document her experience in a way young people could relate. Thank God for cancer humor. I need something other than yet another study that offered grim survival rates or scary-sounding side effects.

According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 72,000 young adults between the ages of 15 and 39 are diagnosed each year. As Skoch reports in her article, today's cancer systems are often set up for older patients, meaning young adults like Adam can feel simultaneously too old for pediatric care and too young for the infrastructure in place for the over-50 set.

Sites like Planet Cancer (founded by young cancer survivors) and I'm Too Young For This (with the tagline "Stupid Cancer") offer a combination of resources, jokes and black-humor merchandise.

"So, welcome to the club that no one wants to belong to but once you're here, you're family. Just like The Olive Garden, except pretty much the exact opposite," reads the I'm Too Young For This homepage. "It's life + cancer, where remission is not a cure and survivorship is all that matters."

Regardless of age, humor may have real healing powers aside from helping in the coping process. The American Cancer Society recognizes humor therapy (also known as laugh therapy) as a complementary and alternative treatment for cancer. While they point out that there's no scientific evidence that laughter can cure cancer or any disease, it can help to "improve quality of life, provide pain relief, encourage relaxation and reduce stress," and maybe even stimulate the circulatory and immune systems (along with other systems in the body).

While "50/50" is definitely laugh-out-loud funny, it's also cry-out-loud sad -- and in that way, it becomes even more poignant than other cancer-genre films that focus only on the dramatic. The humor ultimately makes the heartbreaking moments resonate even more, painting a realistic, holistic picture of Adam's path of healing. Real life can be painfully sad -- and sometimes, it can be really, really funny along the way.

"50/50" is out nationally this weekend -- check out the trailer and exclusive interviews with the cast from Moviefone below.

Looking for another poignant movie relating to cancer? Try one of these (tissues required):