The 12 Best Movies About Cancer and Terminal Illnesses

Cancer and terminal illnesses are hard subjects for movie directors, but these films prove cathartic and insightful when done well.
The 12 Best Movies About Cancer and Terminal Illnesses

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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 tragedy for profit. It takes a skilled director to walk that line and come out the other side unscathed.

Here are our picks for the best movies about cancer and terminal illnesses that successfully imbued their stories with meaning while making us more grateful for our own health.

12. Now Is Good (2012)

Best Movies About Cancer and Terminal Illnesses - Now Is Good (2012)

Directed by Ol Parker

Starring Dakota Fanning, Josef Altin, Jeremy Irvine

Drama, Romance (1h 43m)

7.0 on IMDb56% on RT

With New Age beliefs back on the rise, we're reminded by health gurus and TED Talks to stay present—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 tick off her bucket list. Diagnosed with leukemia, 17-year-old Tessa (Dakota Fanning) really does only have the Now.

Based on Jenny Downham's 2007 book Before I Die, Now Is Good teaches us that "Life is a series of moments. Let them go. Moments all gathering toward this one." Fanning outshines the (admittedly cliché) storyline with her powerful performance, alongside Jeremy Irvine.

11. The Bucket List (2007)

Best Movies About Cancer and Terminal Illnesses - The Bucket List (2007)

Directed by Rob Reiner

Starring Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes

Adventure, Comedy, Drama (1h 37m)

7.4 on IMDb41% on RT

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 (Jack Nicholson) and Carter (Morgan Freeman) are two terminally ill patients who decide to go through their individual bucket lists before lung cancer gets the better of them.

They're completely different in every way—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 tick off, too! It's a real crowd-pleaser that made the National Board of Review's top ten movies of 2007.

10. Miss You Already (2015)

Best Movies About Cancer and Terminal Illnesses - Miss You Already (2015)

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

Starring Drew Barrymore, Toni Collette, Dominic Cooper

Comedy, Drama, Romance (1h 52m)

6.8 on IMDb71% on RT

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 (Drew Barrymore) finds herself in when she finds out that her IVF treatment has worked while her best friend Milly (Toni Collette) is still waiting for a double mastectomy.

You see, after finally settling down with her rock star hubby, Milly avoided facing the truth that she has breast cancer. She confides in her bestie Jess during chemotherapy, but they grow more distant as the cancer spreads.

Miss You Already is a wake-up call to stop delaying those checkups. Catherine Hardwicke inspires us to keep our health in check and loved ones close with this adaptation of Morwenna Bank's 2013 radio drama Goodbye.

9. Love Story (1970)

Best Movies About Cancer and Terminal Illnesses - Love Story (1970)

Directed by Arthur Hiller

Starring Ali MacGraw, Ryan O'Neal, John Marley

Drama, Romance (1h 40m)

6.9 on IMDb66% on RT

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 who fall in love but end up torn apart by many obstacles, including Jenny's terminal diagnosis.

You can tell from Francis Lai's Academy Award-winning score that Love Story is nothing if melodramatic... and we love it! The film's only major criticism was for its depiction of Jenny's cancer as a vague illness.

8. The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

Best Movies About Cancer and Terminal Illnesses - The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

Directed by Josh Boone

Starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff

Drama, Romance (2h 6m)

7.7 on IMDb81% on RT

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 (Shailene Woodley) is the protagonist here, forever hauling that oxygen tank around, but it's actually Gus (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.

7. Peter's Friends (1992)

Best Movies About Cancer and Terminal Illnesses - Peter's Friends (1992)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Starring Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson

Comedy, Drama, Romance (1h 41m)

7.0 on IMDb65% on RT

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 one 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 heart-warming—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 (of being HIV-positive) that much more emotional.

6. My Sister's Keeper (2009)

Best Movies About Cancer and Terminal Illnesses - My Sister's Keeper (2009)

Directed by Nick Cassavetes

Starring Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Alec Baldwin

Drama, Family (1h 49m)

7.3 on IMDb47% on RT

In My Sister's Keeper, the cancer victim is a mere 15-years-old, which only heaps extra tragedy on top of her illness. The only thing worse than being inflicted with leukemia is if your child has it.

Cameron Diaz was praised for her moving depiction of a mother on the brink of grief, alongside impressive child performances from both 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." Anna (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.

5. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

Best Movies About Cancer and Terminal Illnesses - 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)

7.7 on IMDb81% on RT

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.

Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cycler) have been making short films 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 leukaemia—he can think of no better way to pay his respects than by making a movie. The final product is rustically gorgeous; a perfect blend of art, comedy, and friendship.

4. Babyteeth (2019)

Best Movies About Cancer and Terminal Illnesses - Babyteeth (2019)

Directed by Shannon Murphy

Starring Eliza Scanlen, Michelle Lotters, Toby Wallace

Comedy, Drama, Music (1h 58m)

7.2 on IMDb94% on RT

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 (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 (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.

3. 50/50 (2011)

Best Movies About Cancer and Terminal Illnesses - 50/50 (2011)

Directed by Jonathan Levine

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick

Comedy, Drama, Romance (1h 40m)

7.6 on IMDb93% on RT

It's difficult not to make a film about cancer a heavy-handed tearjerker, but Jonathan Levine manages to bring us a superb balance of pathos and comedy in 50/50.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is 27-years-old and diagnosed with schwannoma neurofibrosarcoma. He has a 50/50 chance of survival and must navigate the stages of acceptance, which is made harder by his 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.

2. Philadelphia (1993)

Best Movies About Cancer and Terminal Illnesses - Philadelphia (1993)

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Starring Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Roberta Maxwell

Drama (2h 5m)

7.7 on IMDb81% on RT

Sufferers of HIV/AIDS had it bad in the 1980s, but what made things even worse was the shame that came attached to the diagnosis.

A homophobic and 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 a 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 (Hanks) is turned down by several lawyers who fear "catching" his illness, but is finally accepted by Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) who sees a parallel between his own discrimination for his race and the discrimination Andrew faces for his sexuality and diagnosis.

What follows is a heartbreaking story—inspired by the real life of Geoffrey Bowers—that won multiple Academy Awards.

1. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Best Movies About Cancer and Terminal Illnesses - Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto

Biography, Drama (1h 57m)

7.9 on IMDb92% on RT

Although we feel sorry for rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof, he's not the most likable guy—a foul-mouthed, homophobic drug user who refuses to acknowledge his own AIDS diagnosis.

Whether or not he believes 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. Jared Leto might not be making the best role choices nowadays, but Dallas Buyers Club sits amongst his best all-tie 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.