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New Film Shows The Isolation Of Being A Young Cancer Survivor

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32, I was the youngest person in the oncologist's office -- by decades.
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Producers of the new film "50/50" have released a trailer, and young cancer survivors everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief. The movie, starring Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anna Kendrick, follows a 27-year-old guy who gets diagnosed with cancer. Judging from available scenes, it looks like Hollywood might have finally gotten cancer right.

Usually when young people have cancer in movies, the disease functions as a plot device. In "Sweet November" and "A Walk to Remember," it provides the poignant sting in a tragic love story. In this year's "A Little Bit of Heaven," it presents a way for our plucky heroine to meet the man of her dreams: an adorable oncologist. Most of the distasteful aspects of cancer -- baldness, hours of chemo, fears of mortality -- are left on the cutting room floor.

"50/50" appears to be different. It makes dealing with cancer the central story and tells it with humor and honesty. It also captures something every young survivor can recognize: the isolation that comes with getting cancer in your 20s and 30s.

Adam, the main character, has friends and family who care about him, and yet he still feels out of sync with everyone around him. One scene shows him sitting in a chemo chair next to a fellow patient, a man who is old enough to be his grandfather. Another scene shows his buddy trying to reassure him by stammering that Tom Green beat cancer; he means well, but he is clearly out of his depth.

His friend encourages him to use the cancer card to pick up girls. Adam gamely walks up to a girl in a bar and says, "Great song." After she answers, "Totally," Adam blurts out: "I have cancer." When that goes over like a lead balloon, his friend quickly steers him away saying, "I was wrong! It was weird like that!"

Young survivors will laugh in recognition at these scenes. We know too well what it's like to feel both too young and too old to fit in.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32, I was the youngest person in the oncologist's office--by decades. Other patients carried pictures of their grandchildren and talked about early retirement. I was hoping to live long enough to see my newborn enter kindergarten.

At the same time, my friends couldn't understand what I was going through. While they were soaring along with their careers and relationships, my life had been hijacked. I was consumed with finding good veins for chemo and dealing with temporary menopause, and many friends didn't know how to react. They would've known how to comfort me through a bad break up or fertility problems, but cancer simply wasn't on their radar screens yet.

Every year, 70,000 people between the ages of 18 and 40 get diagnosed with cancer, and yet none of us is prepared for it. Dr. Patricia Ganz of the U.C.L.A. Medical Center says, "Our research shows that younger patients have a harder time, both physically and emotionally. It is not something they've expected."

We enter the gauntlet of cancer treatment at the peak of physical fitness, and we are shocked to discover that our bodies may never look or feel the same. One cervical cancer survivor I spoke to whose radiation left her with a periodically malfunctioning colon said, "What 30-year-old woman poops in her pants? I laugh about it now, but you don't get told that this is what your life will be like afterwards."

Nor do we know how to deal with uncertainties like learning our odds of survival might be 50/50. How can we plan for the future if we don't know we will have one? And like Adam in the film, we have to figure out how to the topic of cancer fits into the dating scene. It's not easy bringing up life-threatening illnesses in a bar or talking about altered sexual functions in the bedroom. One young testicular cancer survivor asked, "How do you tell a girl that you only have one ball? I think my libido would be better if I wasn't scared about that."

These are weighty questions, and many of us use humor to deal with them. One woman I met at a support group threw a Bon Voyage Titty Party before her double mastectomy. Another survivor who had testicular cancer told me he took a bumper sticker that said "Got balls?" cut off the "s" and proudly stuck it on his car.

Most young survivors will welcome the comedy running through "50/50." We have utmost respect for the suffering and grief a diagnosis brings, but it feels good to laugh in cancer's face once in awhile.

The humor has to be real, though: you can't poke fun at cancer if you haven't been radiated yourself. "50/50" was written by Will Reiser, who based the film on his own experience. By sharing his story on the screen, he will make survivors laugh and, hopefully, feel less alone.