My Cancer Vendetta, or The Long Road to Making Cancer Rebellion

Filmmaker and leukemia survivor Hernan Barangan charts the journey that led him to making his documentary feature debut.

I was 15 years old. Just got my driver’s permit. Just asked a girl on a date. Just discovered The Clash. Just diagnosed with Leukemia. Needless to say, it was a whirlwind of a year. Change happens quick when you’re that age – a little faster than usual in my case. OK, a lot faster.

I can only describe it like this: imagine getting a glimpse of a world-sized playground. Endless wonders, limitless discovery, big fun. Then the doors get shut on you. You don’t get that. You have something called cancer. You may never get that.

Hernan Barangan on his 16th birthday

I was pissed, to say the least. But more than that, I was scared. I had my family, but I felt completely isolated. It seemed I was the only teenager in the entire hospital. I may have looked stoic on the outside, but deep down I didn’t expect to last long. At night I’d think, “Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.” (First person to name that movie gets an avocado.)

So it was kind of a surprise when, a couple years later, on the other side of a lot of chemo, remissions and a bone marrow transplant, I was cancer-free and looking at colleges. I had this notion that I could become a filmmaker – after all, I had just spent two years doing nothing but watching movies. I also had a vendetta: I hated the way cancer was being portrayed in films – and I was going to change that. Of course, at the time I couldn’t even say the word “cancer.” My vendetta would have to wait.

The years passed, but the feeling stuck – I was alone, and death was probably right around the corner. I ran as far as I could. Tried to put the entire thing in my rearview mirror. Turns out an experience like that isn’t something you can run away from. When I finally met someone who was also young, also diagnosed with the same cancer, it opened up a whole new world.

Hernan Barangan at film school

Whereas before I was avoiding all things cancer-y, I began seeking out other survivors. When we shared our stories, there was a level of understanding that I had never experienced with “normals.” Our experiences were so fiercely individual, and at the same time so recognizable. My spidey-filmmaker-senses started tingling: There’s a story in this.

So I started making short films about cancer, as a proof-of-concept. I knew that if I could collect enough stories, they would fit together somehow. And a story told in numbers is stronger than one told alone. (You’ve seen The Avengers, I assume?) If I could craft that story, it would be undeniable.

Hernan Barangan with The Who’s Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

That’s when I met Roger Daltrey. <Insert record-scratch SFX!> Turns out he was just starting his charity Teen Cancer America out here in Los Angeles. Talk about perfect timing, right? The really amazing thing was that here, in front of me, was a true rock legend – who also knew everything about what it was like to be a teenager with cancer (He has a charity back in the UK called Teenage Cancer Trust that’s been running over 20 years). More than that, he understood it. And he understood what I was trying to do.

To make this film, I wanted to go to all 50 states. I knew about the experiences of teenagers and young adults fighting cancer like me in California, but what was going on around the country? How was it for someone in New York City? In Montana? I wanted to create a State of the Union about youth cancer.

I started gathering gear and crew. And though I seemed stoic on the outside (there I was again!), deep down I was scared. I was about to immerse myself in the day-to-day lives of young cancer patients – and I was going to spend years in that world. What if I couldn’t take it? What if by saying the word “cancer” so many times, I was invoking the boogeyman? What would happen if I ran out of road? I laid myself at the mercy of the universe, and I knew that in order to make anything of worth, I would have to become absolutely vulnerable. To my hopes, to my fears, to fate itself. I turned the ignition and hit the road.

Cancer Rebellion

All in all, I interviewed 100 people. Collected 28 terabytes of footage. Drove nearly enough miles to circumnavigate the Earth. I look back on it as the most invigorating road trip of my life. Not merely for the beautiful tapestry that makes up the landscape of America, but for the beautiful tapestry of people I met. Woven together, they are the story of Cancer Rebellion.

I’m really proud of this film – it’s the culmination not just of that road trip, but of my entire life since cancer. I know it’s a hard sell – I mean, who wants to watch a movie about cancer? Sounds like a downer. Well, remember my vendetta? Do you really think I’m going to make a downer film? Cancer Rebellion is an action movie. It’s a wry comedy. It’s a road movie. It’s a coming-of-age story that ends with Judd Nelson, his fist in the air, blowing up the Death Star and getting a gold medal from Princess Leia. And when it’s over, you’re going to leave the movie theater kicking trees and smashing your air guitar.

I hope that you’ll watch it, so that together we can change the world.

When Hernan Barangan was 15 years old he was diagnosed with Leukemia – and he beat it. His professional path emerged during the long months undergoing treatment, as he fell in love with cinema. Barangan has since worked on numerous music videos and commercials, as well as produced various multimedia films, including 3 Apartments, a technically and creatively challenging triptych installation film. Returning to the origins of his career, Barangan turned the camera back on cancer itself. The resulting feature film, Cancer Rebellion, follows as he travels to all 50 states, conducting nearly 100 interviews with young cancer fighters. Executive Produced by Roger Daltrey of The Who, Cancer Rebellion is now available to pre-order on Amazon and iTunes. He is also currently attached as writer-director on a provocative feature film dramedy titled Something’s Fishy with Springbok Entertainment.