Why The Martian Movie is a Metaphor for Surviving Serious Illness

A popular movie in October 2015 has been The Martian. Amid fantastic cinematography by Dariusz Wolski and acting by Matt Damon, application of known scientific principles on a distant planet result in an exciting drama, with lots of laughter along the way. I highly recommend it.

But why am I writing about this in an article clearly designed to give readers my tips on health and medicine? It is because I see this motion picture plot and dialogue as a metaphor for a real life drama, which I experience in my patients and my office on a daily basis. In the movie (no spoilers), an astronaut is faced with the sudden occurrence of a life threatening change in the mission, and has to deal with it on physical and emotional levels. And that process makes for a fantastic 2 hours of your time. In the process, Matt Damon's character takes the attitude that when life deals you a challenge, you have to confront it and take charge of your life, not give up. Of course, he says it much better, with a good script (by Drew Goddard based on the book by Andy Weir) and great acting.

But this is exactly what my patients must do to get the best chance to survive life-threatening cancers. The diagnosis is sudden, shocking, emotionally and physically challenging, and, with appropriate interventions, curable or controllable. This is paralleled by the plot in the movie.

So here are my tips direct from Mars (ok, maybe they are actually from me in Los Angeles):

  • When faced with a life threatening diagnosis, get a consultation with the best doctor for that disease that your insurance covers. Ask the doctor to get a second opinion on the pathology diagnosis. Get a second opinion with a doctor if necessary to completely understand the diagnosis and the treatment plan. For advice on getting these second opinions, see my book Surviving American Medicine.
  • Get all the patient educational material from trusted internet sources, such as American Cancer Society, National Institutes of Health, and Center for Disease Control. Understand what your disease means and how it is treated and cured. Take the information you discover back to your doctors to discuss with them.
  • Do not be overwhelmed with the new diagnosis. Commit yourself to overcoming the illness and doing the best possible, and get the support of your family and friends to keep you on track. If necessary, get counseling for depression or anxiety so they do not become obstacles in your recovery.
  • Remember that with research, new advances are today making different therapies available to patients. So ask your doctors about new advances and new clinical trials, or where you can get such information. One source that you can use is the National Institutes of Health clinical trials website.
  • Support groups can help you to realize that, contrary to Matt Damon's character in The Martian, YOU are not alone. Their experiences and advice can help sustain you through your challenging times.

Movies are not real life. But messages in them can help you with your real life situations. Take time to think about surviving against life's unexpected challenges.