Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Rocky Balboa, Cancer, and Me

My wife and I finally watched the movie Creed yesterday. It features the character Rocky Balboa, who has already been featured in seven "Rocky" movies. I'm going to talk about the movie Creed below, so if you haven't seen it and you plan on seeing it, don't read any further.

Here's a photo of Rocky punching some meat to block your way:

Image result for Rocky

Rocky Balboa is one of my favorite characters of all time. The original Rocky came out in 1976, when I was 8 or 9 years old. I loved the story of the underdog who got a chance to make it big, and I especially loved that he had a goal -- just going the distance. And I loved that in the end, he got what he wanted -- he went the distance, and he won Adrian's heart. He's a true champion for a cancer patient.

Sometimes, when my wife has time to sneak in a nap, I'll wake her up by sitting next to her on the edge of the coach, and going through this scene:

And she's pretty good about doing Adrian's lines, even if she's still half asleep. She's good about going along with the goofy stuff that she knows will make me happy. Best of wives and women, as Alexander Hamilton would say about his Eliza.

I could go into a lot more of my love for the other Rocky movies, but let's talk about Creed.

In the movie, Rocky Balboa, now about 70 years old and grieving the death of his wife Adrian, when he agrees to become the trainer for Adonis Creed, the son of his friend and former opponent Apollo Creed.

Along the way, Rocky learns that he has cancer. This was pretty widely known even before the movie came out last year, but it was a surprise to me -- even more a surprise when the doctor told him he had Non-Hodgkn's Lymphoma!

I'm very interested in how NHL is portrayed in movies, TV shows, and in the news, because a lot of what people know about it is learned from those places. Misinformation is not good -- it creates fear (of how horrible a cancer diagnosis is) and ignorance (of what it means to be a cancer patient).

So I want to take a look at Rocky's cancer experience and see how ti holds up.

  • First, Rocky gets the news: This was pretty realistic. Rocky was doing a pretty intense late night training session with Adonis when he got nauseous and fainted. He went for some tests, and then got a call from the doctor. And here's where it got very real -- he spoke calmly on the phone, and then in the next scene, he was in the doctor's office getting the diagnosis. Same thing happened to me, and it was the WORST way to get the news -- the doc said by phone, "Come on in and we'll talk about the test results," and then I had to wait four hours for the appointment. I asked what the news was while we were still on the phone, and she refused to tell me until I came in. Well, obviously it's bad news, right? That was not a good four hours. I understand wanting to be there for the patient, but I asked for the news -- tell me. I guess she wanted to be face-to-face so she could answer my questions. (Oh, wait -- she refused to answer my questions and told me I should ask the oncologist instead. But, hey -- she did offer my wife some valium.  My wife calmly refused, pointing out that we had three kids to take care of, and this was not a good time to be high as a kite. Best of wives and women, I tell ya.)
  • The diagnosis: The doctor told him he had "Large Cell Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma." Now, as far as I can tell, there is no straight up "Large Cell NHL." There are two more specific types, though: Diffuse Large B Cell Lymphoma, and Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma. DLBCL is a B cell lymphoma, and ALCL is a T cell lymphoma. Both of them are treated with CHOP. I'm not sure which one of these was the one that Rocky was supposed to have, but I'm going with ALCL. Mr. T, who co-starred in Rocky III, is a T cell Lymphoma survivor (though I don't think he has ALCL). So I'm going to assume that Rocky's diagnosis is a loving tribute to Mr. T. Either that, or he just made up a type of NHL that sounded real. 
  • The treatment:  The doctor describes the treatment -- surgery to remove the tumors in his lymph nodes, and then chemotherapy. Rocky refuses treatment. He'd already been through this with Adrian, and it didn't work for her. He eventually gives in and gets chemo. I think he skips the surgery, which is good, because I've never heard of removing tumors from lymph nodes. If anything, oncologists want the lymph nodes to stay, since lymphomas are systemic -- the cancer cells travel through the body, so removing a lymph node where they are gathering really won't do any good. And "removing the tumor from the lymph node" is kind of silly. Rocky is shown in a treatment room, with what looks like three IV bags. I assume they are Cytoxan, Adriamycin, and Vincristine (the C, H, O of CHOP)? 
  • The aftermath: I have to say, they did a pretty good job of making Rocky look tired and weak after he has the chemo. They show him getting sick, with Adonis taking care of him. I'd call that part pretty realistic, both in how the chemo affects Rocky, and in how Adonis acts as a loving caretaker. That was nice.
One problem with it all -- while Rocky had a realistic reaction to the diagnosis, in real life, he should have gotten a second opinion. The diagnosis might have been the same, but a specialist could have told him about some other possible treatment options, including clinical trials. In fact, he could have gone to the easy-to-use clinical trial search tool at and found that there are 14 ongoing trials for ALCL in Pennsylvania right now.

That's the kind of product placement I'd really like to see in a movie. An aging boxer sitting with his laptop, making informed choices about his cancer treatment.

So Creed does a decent job of handling cancer, though there could be a few changes without affecting the plot too much.

But more importantly, one of my movie heroes and I now have something in common. Besides being underdogs who won't give up the fight.

If I gave Nodes of Gold honors for fictional characters, Rocky Balboa would definitely have earned them.

I'll be back soon. I've gotta fly now.  (Rocky joke.)


Unknown said...

Hey, liked your review. I am off work with a chest infection at moment and with wife away visiting her parents I thought no better time to have a Rockython. Remembered some of the films as a kid, hadn't seen others before (from rocky v onwards). Heard creed was good, but nothing else, so when rocky got diagnosed with NHL it "rocked" me for a bit as my wife was diagnosed with t-cell lymphoma in April 2015. She went through full body irradiation, Chop and chemo and stem cell transplant (and hell) and is just about on the other side now, and desperately trying to get fit and back to work before end of year as a selfless nurse.
So after watching rocky yesterday it made me just want to have a look at what it said on the web about it and found your post.
Enjoyed the read. Keep on trucking bob.
Steve (Belfast)

Stephen Abernethy said...

Also, I wasn't sure if I would be able to watch 7 rocky films in one sitting, but getting to rocky iii inspired me to dig deep, find the eye of the tiger and keep at it, go the distance! Not sure if it's something to be proud of, but it's done now in any case 😀