Lung Cancer in the Movies - “The Farewell”

Have you ever thought about how your life might be different if when you were diagnosed with lung cancer, no one had told you? Suppose all your friends and family knew, but they decided that it was in your best interest to keep quiet about your diagnosis. Sounds unbelievable, right? Well, this is the premise of the movie “The Farewell” which I just saw this past week.

The Farewell

Before you say that things like this don’t happen in real life, let me tell you that “The Farewell” is based on a true story. The movie opens with the words “based on an actual lie” and is a semi-autobiographical account by writer and director Lulu Wang of her family’s decision not to tell her grandmother about her stage IV lung cancer diagnosis.

Wang’s grandmother lives in China and other than her younger sister, her extended family lives far away, some in the United States such as Wang and her parents and others in Japan. The family decides to come together for a final farewell to Nai Nai (grandmother in Chinese), using the excuse of a hastily planned wedding of one of Wang’s cousins for visiting China in mass.

A story about family, joy, and support

Why do they do this? Well, as one of the characters says in the movie, there is a belief in Chinese culture that people die from fear of cancer instead of from the cancer itself. The doctor tells Nai Nai’s sister that Nai Nai only has three months left to live. We are told that in China, it is common to tell such information to a relative as opposed to the patient herself. By not telling Nai Nai about her diagnosis, the family aims to ensure that Nai Nai lives out the remainder of her life joyfully, as opposed to in fear. Her sister plans to wait until she is on her deathbed to tell her she is dying.

Lest you think this is a completely depressing movie, let me assure you that there are lots of comedic, laugh-out loud moments as well. The family goes to great lengths making sure Nai Nai doesn’t find out about her diagnosis, including falsifying one of her radiology reports to say “benign shadows” as opposed to cancerous lesions! There are many happy, heart-warming family moments (and some ridiculous ones) as Nai Nai’s family supposedly gathers to celebrate the wedding, but really to honor the family matriarch in what they expect to be their final farewell.

Calling out lung cancer treatment advancements

Interestingly, in one scene Nai Nai’s son, who lives in Japan, states that he consulted a Japanese doctor and bought Nai Nai some pills on the internet. He tells her they are vitamins and to take them daily. While the friend who went with me to see this movie thought that was just crazy, this scene really made me wonder. Was Nai Nai being given an oral TKI for a lung cancer mutation such as EGFR, ALK, etc.? This is never directly addressed in the movie.

A thought-provoking, heartfelt film

In summary, “The Farewell” is truly an engaging film as well as a thought-provoking one. I found it very interesting to learn about the cultural differences related to a cancer diagnosis, as well as to consider the ethical issues of sharing or not sharing a diagnosis with a patient. I highly recommend watching this movie — there is a “twist” at the very end of the movie that shouldn’t be missed by anyone living with lung cancer.

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