WGBH filmmakers, Harvard doctors, and people affected by cancer gathered last Thursday night at the Coolidge Corner Theater for what eventually became the equivalent of a scientific town meeting. It began as a free sneak preview of “The Truth About Cancer,” a 90-minute documentary to premier on PBS this Wednesday, April 16, but the film’s intensity, combined with primarily Boston-based interview subjects, (most of whom were in the audience), fueled a post-screening Q & A with writer/director/producer Linda Garmon that allowed a serious discussion on the state of cancer research to transpire between Ph.Ds and non-scientists.
Due to the amount of discussion dedicated to illness and death, a grief counselor was available at the screening for audience members, and rightly so. According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 1.3 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer each year, a puny number compared to how many more are touched by the disease. It doesn’t just take lives; it rattles patients and their families about until they are good and bloodied. The power of “The Truth About Cancer” is that it doesn’t focus on the science or statistics, it’s about the people. Garmon, who lost her husband Larry in 2001 to mesothelioma, a rare cancer linked to asbestos exposure, uses the film to weave his story into interviews with experts and current patients to find out where cancer treatment is today.
There is no mysticism in Garmon’s documentary, and she stated quite clearly at the Q & A that she believes in science. Unfortunately, science can be cold. A truth that emerges in the film is the failure of Nixon’s war on cancer. The next federal goal is to end death and suffering by cancer by 2015. Another insight is that clinical trials may not always benefit current patients because they require many mistakes before they are effective. Even more shocking, nine out of ten of these trials will fail. We also don’t know enough about cancer prevention. At the moment, even the most healthy individual can succumb to the disease. “The truth about cancer,” says Garmon in arguably the film’s most memorable line, “is you can follow all the rules and just have damned bad luck.”
The doctors featured in the film, all who saw it for the first time on Thursday, shared similar sentiments. “Modern cancer care never discusses that you don’t win very often,” says Dr. George Demetri of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the film. “It’s very American to think you can control your destiny, but when it comes to cancer, it’s all biology.” When asked about his response to the documentary during the Q & A, Dr. Gregory Ryan, a GI specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital replied, “This is torture to go through it a second time. To watch a person dying is not my thing, but there is nothing better than helping someone who needs help.”
“The Truth About Cancer” can be viewed on the PBS Website for the next 7 years. In addition to being a well-crafted documentary, the film is an effective tool to learn about the science of cancer. Not only is the information easy to understand, it is kept relevant to the stories. (Part of this research was done by Karen Rowan, an intern on the film and a Boston University science journalism alumna. Nice Job.)