If you’re planning to go to the opening of The Fault in Our Stars tonight, you’re going to need two things: A massive wad of tissues and a high tolerance for uncontrollable weeping.
But don’t go to a coming-of-age love story about two teen cancer patients without expecting some serious feels. Feels, and plenty of reflection on the world’s cancer epidemic and how it’s affected our own lives. I caught the movie, based on the John Green novel of the same name, at a preview screening in Austin with Green and the director, Josh Boone, in attendance. ForeverFest founders Brandy Fons and Sarah Pitre hosted a Q&A after the screening which you can watch here.
Naturally the place was packed with Nerdfighters and lovers of YA fiction. The vast majority of the audience already read the book (we were polled), and I’d wager most of the people lining up to see an opening-day screening will also be well acquainted with Hazel and Gus and their beautiful, tragic love.
There are moments of levity, but always hanging over the story is the shade of serious illness. In the last acts, not only was there not a dry eye in the house, I could hear the people around me gasping for breath through sobs. I went into the film swearing to myself I’d keep it together, but inevitably the events on screen are filtered through our own experiences—and who hasn’t been affected in some way by cancer? According to American Cancer Society half of men and one third of women in the U.S. are at risk of suffering some form of cancer in their lifetimes.
People watching The Fault in Our Stars aren’t just weeping and rooting for Hazel and Gus, with all their allusions to a modern Romeo and Juliet, or Anne Frank and Peter Schiff, so tragically young, in love, and ill-fated. We’re also re-living the pain of watching our own mothers, grandfathers, aunts, cousins, friends, sisters, and brothers battle cancer. The raw human emotion of it—knowing what it’s like to stand by that hospital bed, portrayed so honestly on screen, dredges up deeply personal and painful memories.
“I’m dealing with my mother fighting stage four cancer,” said one fan during the Q&A portion of the screening. “And when I read the book I was just—tears.”
I was swept back to Clyde, Ohio, where as a young reporter I spent a year covering a childhood cancer cluster for a local newspaper. A few families were brave and gracious enough to let me into their homes and lives to tell their stories. They desperately wanted to know why more than 30 children in their small, rural community had been diagnosed with cancer.
Was it something in air? The water? The schools? They thought maybe bringing attention to the problem could trigger some investigation. Indeed, local health and environmental authorities searched for potential causes as I spent time getting to know these kids and their families.
Some of them were in treatment and on their way to recovery. I rode a golf carts through the woods and played video games with a boy and his sister, both recovering from different types of leukemia. I remember the boy waxing lovingly about sunnyside up eggs—a meal he wasn’t allowed to eat with his weakened immune system. That, a regimen of pills and hospital appointments, and occasional exhausted, achy days were all that separated him for any other sixth grader.
But other kids in the community didn’t recover. I watched 11-year-old Alexa Brown struggle to draw each breath as she slept, snuggled into her older sister’s protective arms on their parents big bed. She was a wisp of a thing, with a bald head and a beautiful face. Family and friends held vigil, waiting and praying, not knowing how long she might last. Years earlier she had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer and after treatment options dried up, it came down to this.
After she died, her parents poured their grief into fighting for additional funding for childhood cancer research. They knew giving doctors more information and more options could help all kids diagnosed with cancer. It seems like a no-brainer. Of course, we as a society want to prevent and better treat childhood cancers. But when it came to asking lawmakers in Washington D. C. for additional funding, they were only able to lobby an additional earmark of a few million dollars—a victory, but a small one when it comes to expensive medical research.
Because childhood cancers aren’t as common as some adult cancers, research funding tends to be limited. In some cases, young patients are given treatment drugs formulated for adults that are harder on their fragile, still-growing bodies. One dad confided that the drugs may kill the cancer, but they’re also killing the kid.
All of this stormed through my head as Hazel and Gus try their first sips of champagne and find the courage to let themselves love, knowing there could also be loss.
And I’m sure John Green was thinking of Esther Earl, the inspiration for The Fault in Our Stars. Before she died as the result of thyroid cancer, the 16-year-old asked Green to tell her story, to help the world understand that even critically ill young people live complex lives touched by embarrassing parents, awkward crushes, inside jokes, as well as heartbreak. While Hazel Grace Lancaster lives in fiction, she echoes the very real lives of the Esther Earls and Alexa Browns of the world. Though Green’s work we can understand them as whole people, not defined by their illness or by the tragedy of their short lives. There’s a beauty and a comfort in looking at a life for what it was, outside the framework of what our expectations dictate it should have been.
Though this lens it’s tempting to arrive at some kind of Zen-like acceptance of cancer being just one of those things that happens outside our control. But I think Green forwards the two ideas simultaneously: We can can appreciate and accept the lives of the people affected by cancer without weakening our resolve to fight for and fund the medical research necessary to prevent and better treat it. I remember from my years reporting on the issue that a key mission of childhood cancer support organizations was raising awareness. John Green’s book, and now his film, have done that in abundance, and he’s been generous in advocating for and supporting cancer charities.
We’ve already raised more than $10,000 to fight sarcoma! Donate to decide which teams I’ll support in the World Cup. https://t.co/fFJXhxi37g
— John Green (@realjohngreen) June 5, 2014
I just hope that many of the folks who experience Hazel’s story feel the same urge to help. It just seems natural that after you’ve laughed with them and cried with them that you’ll feel compelled to do something for kids like Hazel and Gus. Not because you pity them—and if you do, you’ve missed the point of the film. It’s because cancer is real, and if there’s anything we can do anything to prevent or better treat it, we should—for Esther, for Alexa, our families, and ourselves.