The Difference Between Cancersploitation and Art—According to a Cancer Survivor

Films about cancer, such as 'The Fault in Our Stars,' can offer a new understanding of humanity.(TIME) — Whether we view cancer films as outsiders or insiders, the best movies in the genre provide catharsis.

In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel, the story’s teenage protagonist played by Shailene Woodley, wears a t-shirt imprinted with Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe, ceci n’est pas une pipe (“this is not a pipe”). She explains the picture to her confused mother, saying “All representations of a thing are inherently abstract.” Art, in other words, imitates life: it is not meant to be life itself.

So it is with cancer films. These stories are not meant to be literal representations. What it means to watch them depends on whether we come as outsiders, wanting to understand an experience beyond our own, or as insiders, coming to see our own lives reflected.

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Lani Horn is Associate Professor of mathematics Education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her scholarship focuses on everyday learning and developing theoretical frameworks that account for social and emotional as well as psychological dimensions of human cognition. When she became a breast cancer patient in 2009, two years after losing her stepbrother to cancer, she became interested in documenting and analyzing the social and emotional aspects of cancer, treatment, and survivorship. She wrote about issues such as caregiving, end of life, doctor-patient communications, the cultural expectations of patients, and young adults and parents with cancer on her blog, She hopes to merge her scholarship and advocacy through studies of cancer patients’ learning in the future.

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