By Peter Shaw, MD, Director, Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Oncology Program, Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC
In a past blog post, I wrote about how the 70,000 or so 15- to 39-year-olds diagnosed with cancer every year in the United States can fall between the cracks of the current health care system and don’t always have a voice. Our Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Oncology Program at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC has worked hard to level the playing field for this unique population, but now, author John Green in his best-selling young adult novel “The Fault in Our Stars” and its new movie version being released nationwide today has given this population a voice. It is the love story between two young adult cancer patients who meet in a support group. The story has been embraced by all who have read it (including me) as being painfully accurate in the way it portrays teens with cancer and their struggles and triumphs in coping with it and its effects on their loved ones.
The movie itself, even though it takes place mostly in Indianapolis, was filmed mostly in Pittsburgh. Last summer during pre-production, executive producer Isaac Klausner reached out to
Arthur S. Levine, MD, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, to find a physician to consult on the movie. Dr. Levine called Nancy E. Davidson, MD, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, who then introduced Isaac to me. After a few phone conversations, I gave Isaac, director Josh Boone, and several other members of the crew a tour of Children’s Hospital, and they picked my brain on the details of what teen cancer patients go through and what each piece of equipment was for. They also put out a casting call for teen cancer patients to be extras and several of our patients answered the call.
When filming started in the fall around Pittsburgh (the South Hills, Hartwood Acres Park, Monroeville, and on sets built at the old Westinghouse complex in Turtle Creek), our teen patients and I had the opportunity to be extras. Star Shailene Woodley even took one of our cancer survivors out to lunch to discuss what it is like to have to walk around hooked up to an oxygen tank all day, as her character Hazel Grace Lancaster does. Actor Sam Trammell (who plays Hazel’s dad) had lunch with one of my patient’s father to ask what it is like to be the father of a teen with cancer. Author John Green was omnipresent on the set and became close with several patients, becoming texting and Instagram buddies with them. I had the pleasure of meeting him during my one day on set in November and chatted with him for about 20 minutes. I was so impressed with his commitment to make sure his book was accurate as well as the film version. I had the opportunity to film a scene playing a doctor (I know, a stretch) with Sam Trammell and Laura Dern (who played Hazel’s mother). It gave me an appreciation of how much time and care goes into each shot. Also, the director, Josh, and the actors could not have been more warm and welcoming to this labcoat-clad interloper on the set.
On May 29, I had the pleasure of attending the Pittsburgh pre-screening at the Waterfront where John Green made an appearance. Most of our patient stars attended and sat in a VIP section. All of the heart and effort that went into making the movie true to the book and therefore true to the young adult cancer world were not in vain. The tearjerker film was beautifully done and well-acted and I loved seeing my patients on the screen (but not as much as they did!). My team didn’t need a movie screen to tell us our AYA patients are stars, but to see their smiles in the theater and hear the applause when they popped up on screen and during the credits was priceless.
My three or so hours of filming translated into about 5–10 seconds of my being on screen, which unfortunately only featured my hand making a short-lived cameo pushing a medication. Needless to say, I will not be giving up my job at Children’s to pursue a career in acting anytime soon. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Taking care of AYA oncology patients is a greater privilege than being in 100 movies.