‘The C Word’: Film Review

The_C_Word_Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Zorro and Me Films
Required viewing for anyone who cares about their health, especially if they’ve discounted or overlooked alternative medicine.

Morgan Freeman narrates and executive produced a documentary that addresses the failings in Western medicine’s approach to cancer.

Filmmaker Meghan L. O’Hara was the recipient of more than two dozen awards and nominations for producing Sicko, a film about healthcare, when she learned that her own health was in dire jeopardy: She was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Using her own experience as a jumping-off point, The C Word, her first theatrical documentary as a director, looks at the ways that orthodoxy about cancer treatment has turned into a harmful closed-mindedness, with lives at stake.

Against the odds, the film is as vibrant as it is personal and urgent. Working with three editors, O’Hara interweaves her interviews with experts and fellow survivors, leavening the sober subject with simple animation, sharply deployed archival material and the warm common sense of Morgan Freeman’s “let’s get real, folks” narration.

At the center of the documentary is David Servan-Schreiber, the physician and neuroscientist whose books include Anticancer: A New Way of Life. First diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor at 31, Servan-Schreiber underwent surgery and considered himself cured; it was the cancer’s recurrence that was his true wake-up call. The four-pronged approach he developed, which addresses diet, exercise, stress and environmental toxins, was at first pilloried in the mainstream media, with some medical practitioners debunking his thesis as being devoid of science. Today, his integrative approach is the subject of a landmark study at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, a leading research and treatment facility in Houston.

Though the very idea of integrative oncology might still be scoffed at by many in the medical establishment, the pressing point of O’Hara’s film is the impact of this conventional mind-set on the many people who could benefit from lifestyle changes. Doctors, as a rule, aren’t relaying basic preventive information to their patients. Western medicine continues to perfect ways of destroying cancer cells but rarely steps back to look at the whole person and how to strengthen and heal the body. A young man who survived colon cancer shares a telling, and jaw-dropping, example of the disconnect when he recalls that the first post-surgery meal the hospital served him was a sloppy joe.

Like the affable and driven Servan-Schreiber, The C Word is interested in the big picture. Concisely and powerfully, O’Hara and a few key experts address the lack of true oversight of Big Pharma and the cosmetics industry. They connect the dots between the market-driven practices that value profit over quality of life and the addictions (tobacco, sugar) that plague so many consumers of processed packaged goods. Talking with defenders of the “right to choose” — people who derided former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stance against giant sugary drinks — she makes the compelling point that true choice rests on being informed, not lied to.

Informing people was a calling for Servan-Schreiber. As the documentary illustrates in intimate and sometimes heart-wrenching footage, he devoted himself to teaching what he had learned to as many people as he could. In the globe-trotting process, he ignored his own message about reducing stress. Those who refuse to consider his health philosophy will simply point out that he died of cancer. But he outlived his original prognosis by many years, and he made those years count.

Distributor: Abramorama
Production companies: Zorro and Me Films in association with Honest Engine, Impact Partners, Revelations Entertainment
Narrator: Morgan Freeman
Director-screenwriter: Meghan LaFrance O’Hara
Producer: Meghan O’Hara, Pascaline Servan-Schreiber, Lori McCreary
Executive producers: Morgan Freeman, Dan Cogan, Diana Barrett, Regina K. Scully
Directors of photography: Topaz Adizes, Nelson Hume
Editors: Bryan Gunnar Cole, Francisco Bello, Lorian James Delman
Composers: Erin O’Hara, Bob Golden, City of the Sun, John Pita, Avi Snow, Zach Para

Not rated, 93 minutes