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Childhood Cancer in the Cinema: How the Celluloid Mirror Reflects Psychosocial Care

Pavisic, Jovana MD*,†; Chilton, Julie MD*; Walter, Garry MD, PhD; Soh, Nerissa L. PhD; Martin, Andrés MD, MPH*

Journal of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology: August 2014 - Volume 36 - Issue 6 - p 430–437
doi: 10.1097/MPH.0000000000000195
Historical Insights

Objective: This study aims to evaluate the childhood cancer experience in commercially produced, readily available films that include a character with childhood cancer, with a particular focus on psychosocial care.

Methods: We reviewed 29 films, using quantitative and qualitative content analysis, to identify the medical and psychosocial characteristics of the cinematic childhood cancer experience. We rated psychosocial support on a 5-point scale (0 to 4) based on the availability and efficacy of support characters in the categories of nonprofessional internal (eg, parent), nonprofessional external (eg, friend), professional medical (eg, oncologist), and professional psychosocial (eg, social worker) supports.

Results: Film depicts an unrealistic, bleak picture of childhood cancer, with a 66% mortality rate among the 35 characters evaluated. Psychosocial supports portrayed in film are generally limited to resources already available to families before the cancer diagnosis: mean ratings across films were 2.4 for both nonprofessional, 1.6 for professional medical, and 0.3 for professional psychosocial supports (Kruskal-Wallis χ3 2=43.1051, P<0.0001). Seven main themes emerged: disruption, social impact, psychological impact, physical toll, struggle/war/fight, coping, and barren landscape. Film generally depicts images of an isolated family courageously battling cancer alone with limited support from a treatment team solely dedicated to medical care.

Conclusions: Commercially available films minimize the importance of the psychosocial dimension of care, which can perpetuate stigma around psychosocial needs and interventions. These films can be used to encourage discussion about how to optimize psychosocial care in pediatric oncology so that such care is not abandoned in actual practice as it is, for entertainment purposes, on the screen.

*Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT

Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA

University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine, Sydney, NSW, Australia

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Reprints: Andrés Martin, MD, MPH, Yale Child Study Center, 230 South Frontage Road, New Haven, CT 06520-7900 (e-mail:

Received February 8, 2014

Accepted April 30, 2014

© 2014 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.