Over the years, cancer movies have become their own sort of subgenre in cinema, what with the world's growing campaign for cancer awareness and its fight to cure all kinds of terminal illnesses.
These films are tough to get right because there's a razor thin line between giving a voice to those who have suffered with terminal illnesses and simply capitalizing on their tragedy for profit. It takes a skilled director to walk that line and come out the other side unscathed.
Here are my picks for the best movies about cancer and terminal illnesses, which successfully imbued their stories with meaning while making us more grateful for our own health.
18. Miss You Already (2015)
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Starring Drew Barrymore, Toni Collette, Dominic Cooper
Comedy, Drama, Romance (1h 52m)
When we get good news, obviously the first person we want to tell is our best mate. But what if your best friend is going through hell? You don't exactly want to rub salt on their wound with your own fortune!
That's the pickle that Jess (played by Drew Barrymore) finds herself in when she finds out that her IVF treatment was successful, while her best friend Milly (played by Toni Collette) is still waiting to undergo a double mastectomy for breast cancer.
You see, after finally settling down with her rock star hubby, Milly avoided her check-ups because she didn't want to face the truth. She confides in her bestie Jess during chemotherapy, but they grow more distant as the cancer spreads and progresses.
Miss You Already is a wake-up call to pay attention to health and stop delaying those regular check-ups. Catherine Hardwicke inspires us to keep our loved ones close with this adaptation of Morwenna Bank's 2013 radio drama Goodbye.
17. Now Is Good (2012)
Directed by Ol Parker
Starring Dakota Fanning, Josef Altin, Jeremy Irvine
Drama, Romance (1h 43m)
With New Age beliefs back on the rise, we're reminded by health gurus and TED Talks to always stay present and to enjoy The Now.
Director Ol Parker emphasizes this message in Now Is Good by telling the story of a terminally ill teenager who's trying to check off her bucket list. Diagnosed with leukemia, 17-year-old Tessa (played by Dakota Fanning) really does only have The Now.
Based on Jenny Downham's 2007 book Before I Die, Now Is Good teaches us: "Life is a series of moments. Let them go. Moments all gathering toward this one." Fanning outshines the (admittedly clichéd) storyline with her powerful performance, alongside Jeremy Irvine.
16. The Bucket List (2007)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Starring Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes
Adventure, Comedy, Drama (1h 37m)
Death is an inevitable part of life and we all know it's coming sooner or later; the only thing we don't know is when. That's why when terminal illnesses strike, we naturally want to cram as much living in as possible.
In The Bucket List, Edward (played by Jack Nicholson) and Carter (played by Morgan Freeman) are two terminally ill men who decide to go through their individual bucket lists before lung cancer gets the best of them.
They're polar opposites—one's a mechanic while the other's a millionaire—but the two men form an unlikely friendship. Odd couples like this often end up being the most interesting to watch, and that's certainly the case here as they bicker, laugh, and learn from each other.
Rob Reiner's comedy-drama takes us on the road for all sorts of adventures we didn't realize we needed to check off, too! It's a real crowd-pleaser that made the National Board of Review's top ten movies of 2007.
15. Last Holiday (2006)
Directed by Wayne Wang
Starring Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, Timothy Hutton
Comedy, Drama, Romance (1h 52m)
Like many characters in the movies on this list, Georgia Byrd (played by Queen Latifah) is also looking to check off her list before kicking the bucket, which she unexpectedly finds out is only weeks away.
Having lived a quiet life inside of her shell, Georgia's dreams lay hidden in her "Possibilities" scrapbook before a CT scan reveals a brain tumor. Suddenly, her dreams are laid out in front of her, and Georgia catches the next flight out to the Czech Republic.
During this final holiday, Georgia experiences all kinds of delicacies, spa treatments, extreme sports, and new connections. The whole experience teaches Georgia to be bold, take risks, and fall in love.
14. Love Story (1970)
Directed by Arthur Hiller
Starring Ali MacGraw, Ryan O'Neal, John Marley
Drama, Romance (1h 40m)
Love Story is an apt title for Arthur Hiller's Oscar-nominated drama, as it was quickly considered one of the "most romantic films of all time" by the American Film Institute. Even more unusual is that critics dubbed Love Story better than the original book it was based on!
Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal star in this romance flick as Jenny and Oliver, two halves of a couple from differing social classes. The duo fall in love but end up torn apart by Jenny's terminal diagnosis.
You can tell from Francis Lai's Academy Award-winning score that Love Story is nothing if not melodramatic... and we love it! The film's only major criticism was for its depiction of Jenny's cancer as a vague illness.
13. The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
Directed by Josh Boone
Starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff
Drama, Romance (2h 6m)
Unless you were living under a rock in 2014, you've probably heard of The Fault in Our Stars. After John Green's 2012 novel was a sell-out success, teens flooded to theaters to catch Josh Boone's movie adaptation.
Sure, The Fault in Our Stars might be a run-of-the-mill teen drama, but even adults can't resist shedding a tear or two here. Cancer-stricken lovers will always be a sad story—even more so when they're young!
Hazel (played by Shailene Woodley) is the protagonist, forever hauling that oxygen tank around, but it's actually Gus (played by Ansel Elgort) who takes a turn for the worst. Some may laugh at his metaphorically unlit cigarette, but no one can deny the impact it had on teens at the time.
12. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Starring Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke
Comedy, Drama, Romance (1h 45m)
Okay, the title of this film is pretty blunt, but it's precisely that blend of frankness and nostalgia that makes it so good.
In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's passion for cinema comes through in expressing the beauty of life, the fragility of which is highlighted through Rachel's illness (played by Olivia Cooke).
Greg (played by Thomas Mann) and Earl (played by RJ Cyler) have been making short films together for years, parodying famous titles with their Super 8 to pass the days.
When Greg's parents force him to reconnect with an old school friend—recently diagnosed with leukemia—he can think of no better way to pay his respects than by making her a movie. The final product is rustically gorgeous; a perfect blend of art, comedy, and friendship.
11. Babyteeth (2019)
Directed by Shannon Murphy
Starring Eliza Scanlen, Michelle Lotters, Toby Wallace
Comedy, Drama, Music (1h 58m)
We can't help who we fall in love with, and that includes a homeless drug addict who's seven years older than you.
That age gap might not mean so much if Milla (played by Eliza Scanlen) wasn't still in school—or if she didn't have cancer. Of course, her wealthy professional parents don't approve of Moses (played by Toby Wallace), but they allow him to stay on account of how happy he makes her.
Moses lives a reckless lifestyle that's dangerous for anyone, let alone a sick, impressionable young girl. When Milla's first love turns out to be using her, her burden is made heavier as the end of her life approaches.
Scanlen's film debut is electric yet tender, a brilliant rendition of Rita Kalnejais's stage play, directed by Shannon Murphy.
10. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (2017)
Directed by Paul McGuigan
Starring Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Vanessa Redgrave
Biography, Drama, Romance (1h 45m)
A unique title for a unique movie, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool tells the surprising true story of an ex-Hollywood starlet falling in love with some random guy from Liverpool.
Gloria Grahame was famous during cinema's Golden Age, from the Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life to film noirs like The Big Heat. By the time Gloria entered her 50s, she'd been diagnosed with breast cancer and flown to the UK to perform in one final play.
Who'd have thought the Oscar-winning actress would end up dancing alone at a boarding house in dreary North England? It's here that Peter Turner finds Gloria—eccentric, flirtatious, and palpably sad.
The most obvious element of Paul McGuigan's biographical love story is the 30-year age gap between Gloria and Peter (brilliantly portrayed by Annette Bening and Jamie Bell) but age is just a number here.
9. Terms of Endearment (1983)
Directed by James L. Brooks
Starring Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson
Comedy, Drama (2h 12m)
The majority of Terms of Endearment has nothing to do with terminal illness, but it does play a pivotal role in the final act. Based on the 1975 novel, Terms of Endearment depicts the volatile relationship between a mother and her daughter over a 30-year span.
Teenage angst turns into a disapproved marriage, and Emma (played by Debra Winger) navigates financial hardship and her husband's infidelity with her mother on the other end of the phone.
Aurora (played by Shirley MacLaine) has her own problems, but she puts off facing them to control her grown daughter's life.
When Emma becomes a mother herself, that's what eventually unites her with Aurora again—though their relationship is still not without its spats. Then, Emma gets diagnosed with terminal cancer.
8. My Sister's Keeper (2009)
Directed by Nick Cassavetes
Starring Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Alec Baldwin
Drama, Family (1h 49m)
In My Sister's Keeper, the cancer victim is a mere 15 years old, which only heaps extra tragedy on top of her illness. And the only thing worse than being inflicted with leukemia? Your child having it.
Cameron Diaz was praised for her moving depiction of a mother on the brink of grief, alongside impressive child performances from Abigail Breslin and Sofia Vassilieva.
My Sister's Keeper isn't just a sob story about what it's like to have cancer. It goes deeper and wrestles with the moral dilemma of "savior siblings."
The thing is, Anna (played by Abigail Breslin) was conceived through IVF for the sole purpose of being her sister's organ donor, so they've both spent most of their lives in the hospital.
Anna decides to take legal action against her parents, and Nick Cassavetes weighs our empathy between both parties in this original and thought-provoking drama that'll break your heart.
7. Peter's Friends (1992)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson
Comedy, Drama, Romance (1h 41m)
Peter's Friends is an old-school British gem that leaves its most dramatic parts for the end. Up until the big reveal, Kenneth Branagh gives us a straight-up sarcastic comedy that unfolds over the course of a weekend.
The setting is New Year's Day, 1992, and Peter's friends have all gathered at his inherited estate to celebrate and reminisce. They've been a gang since their Cambridge acting days a decade prior, but there's more to Peter's hospitality than they first realize.
The sparking chemistry between the ensemble cast is what makes this movie feel so real, funny, and heartwarming—because all of these actors are actually friends in real life!
Stephen Fry, Kenneth Branagh, Alphonsia Emmanuel, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, and Emma Thompson have starred in multiple films together, so their genuine on-screen affection makes Peter's announcement that much more emotional.
6. Living (2022)
Directed by Oliver Hermanus
Starring Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp
Drama (1h 42m)
The trope of living life to the fullest in the wake of terminal illness is a trope that's been done every which way, but one of the best ways is in Living. Based on Ikiru, Oliver Hermanus brings Akira Kurosawa's noir masterpiece to Western viewers without losing any of its charm.
Even if Living is geared towards mainstream viewers and casts familiar faces in a familiar English setting, it retains the soul of Ikiru while jazzing it up with stunning vintage visuals.
The 1.48:1 aspect ratio goes hand-in-hand with Living's 1950s period setting, where Bill Nighy stars as a London bureaucrat with an essence of Ebenezer Scrooge about him.
The snow-dusted world of Dickens is also present towards the end of Living, where we find Rodney on a swing set after accepting his cancer diagnosis. Certainly the coziest film to come out of 2022!
5. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anjelica Huston
Comedy, Drama (1h 50m)
Gene Hackman's Royal Tenenbaum is one of the best anti-heroes in Wes Anderson's canon. He's a compelling protagonist who isn't quite a baddie, but not exactly a goodie, either. So, what makes him bad?
Well, Royal is faking stomach cancer to win back his family (and their money). Kicked out of his hotel room home, Royal guilt-trips his ex-wife and estranged kids into letting him live with them again.
The Tenenbaum family tree is complex and unusual, with Royal's three genius children feeling more like caricatures than actual people (in a good, iconic Halloween costume kind of way).
At the center of all this dysfunction is Royal himself: a gambling, lying, money-grubbing cancer patient without the cancer. Even so, you might find yourself sort of loving him by the end, anyway.
4. 50/50 (2011)
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick
Comedy, Drama, Romance (1h 40m)
It's difficult to make a great film about cancer that isn't a heavy-handed tearjerker, but Jonathan Levine manages to bring us a superb balance of pathos and comedy in 50/50.
Adam (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is 27 years old and diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his spine. He has a 50 percent chance of survival and must navigate the stages of grief, which is made harder by his sudden breakup with his cheating girlfriend.
You probably don't think of Seth Rogen as a great pairing for a cancer movie, but he's actually the perfect casting as Adam's crude best friend who carries him through chemo with humor.
50/50 isn't the kind of film that requires a sad ending for plausibility, but it does have a touch of realism that makes it unexpectedly powerful.
3. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Directed by Richard Brooks
Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives
Drama (1h 48m)
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it's not the protagonist who's plagued with cancer but his father. Big Daddy's (played by Burl Ives) diagnosis is what forces the rest of the characters to face their own skeletons in the closet.
Adapted from Tennessee Williams's Pulitzer Prize-winning play—a true Southern discomfort—Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has been repeatedly performed on both stage and big screen.
Director Richard Brooks brings us the most famous film version, released in 1958 and starring Paul Newman (as Big Daddy's alcoholic son) and Elizabeth Taylor (as his wife, also known as the "cat").
Tennessee Williams reportedly disliked this washed-down, straight-edged MGM adaptation, but that was mainly due to the restrictions put on the film by the Hays Code. Still, that doesn't mean critics, audiences, and the Academy Awards didn't love it!
2. Philadelphia (1993)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Roberta Maxwell
Drama (2h 5m)
Sufferers of HIV/AIDS had it bad in the 1980s, but what made things even worse was the shame that came with the diagnosis.
An ignorant society made victims feel like they had to hide their illness to avoid being blamed for it in some way—an awful reality that Jonathan Demme brings under the microscope in Philadelphia.
Tom Hanks stars as a senior associate of a law firm, who not only has to conceal his sexuality but also his life-threatening lesions.
Andrew (played by Tom Hanks) is turned down by several lawyers who fear "catching" his illness, but is finally accepted by Joe Miller (played by Denzel Washington), who sees a parallel with the discrimination he himself faces for his race.
What follows is a heartbreaking story—inspired by the actual life of Geoffrey Bowers—that won multiple Academy Awards.
1. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto
Biography, Drama (1h 57m)
Although we feel sorry for rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), he's not the most likable guy. Indeed, he's a foul-mouthed, homophobic drug user who refuses to acknowledge his own AIDS diagnosis.
Whether or not he accepts it, Ron only has 30 days left to live—so he desperately turns to clinical drug trials for help.
Matthew McConaughey gives a startling lead performance as the real-life AIDS victim, and the film swept the 86th Academy Awards. And while Jared Leto might not be making the best role choices nowadays, Dallas Buyers Club sits among his best all-time performances.
Both McConaughey and Leto lost huge amounts of weight for their roles, unrecognizable behind their polar-opposite characters who end up working together to change history.