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Expert Analysis Highlights:
How well does the media do in reporting to you about the “hope” of cancer advances, while keeping a perspective that this is still a life-threatening disease that kills over a half million people each year?
Not very well, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in March, 2010 by Drs Fishman, Ten and Casarett from the University of Pennsylvania. They examined over 400 articles published in the lay press (i.e.: a public audience, not a medical journal) and found that a whopping 95% reported exclusively on aggressive and expensive treatments –such as chemotherapy, bone marrow transplantation and radiation therapy—while only 13% mentioned that these treatments can fail. Moreover, less than a third put their article in a balanced perspective by including a description of the adverse side effects and cost of cancer treatments.
Please understand that I am not against the reporting of promising advances and the progress we are making, but I do think the media can do a better job. For example, I was recently interviewed on a new drug advance for melanoma, and was quoted (appropriately) that this was “ a single, not a home run”, meaning that is one of the first survival advances in the treatment of advanced melanoma, but probably won’t be used as a single agent to increase cure rates of melanoma. It was not reported that the drug can have serious side effects and that some patients died as a result of the treatment! On the one hand, if you are a patient for whom all other treatments have failed and you are facing the prospects of dying in the coming months, then getting a powerful drug with serious, sometimes life-threatening side effects may be your only choice. Or, if you have had potentially curative surgery but still have a risk of relapsing later on, you might have some pause about taking a drug that may interrupt or halt your present quality of life or even shorten your life. Doctors and cancer patients make these kinds of decisions every day based upon estimating the probability of success or failures among groups of patients. However, at the level of an individual patient, we don’t have a crystal ball! Some patients do better than expected and other do worse. We all have to make our best decision about the whether the benefits of a particular treatment outweigh the potential risks and complications and then accept the outcome as we go forward.
I’ll quote from a blog by Dr Casarett, one of the researchers on this study. “Of course, it’s not such a terrible thing if we can’t find what we need about cancer in newspapers and magazines. These are just one source of information that’s available to us. If we don’t find what we are looking for in one of these articles, we can look somewhere else. That’s why the real problem with these articles is not the information that’s missing from them, but rather the biased picture that they give of what it’s like to have cancer…..The most worrisome thing we found in these articles, though, was the way they carefully avoid mentioning death and dying. In fact, only 8% mentioned the possibility that people die of their cancer….So these articles play to this fear (of dying) by reassuring us that there are treatments that work, and that there are cures that are effective. That is, they tell us what we want to hear.” The full blog story can be found at www.huffingtonpost.com/david-casarett-md/cancer-news-offers-reader_b_499540.html.
Of course, this desire–indeed our passion– is to inform and educate cancer patients so they can learn about what they need to know, not just the things we want to hear. That is why we started Patient Resource Cancer Guides and its website www.patientresource.net and www.mycanceradvisor.com, so that cancer patients could learn about all aspects of the cancer journey, including the more difficult issues of pain management, treatment options and their complications, and the process of death and dying. We hope that empowering patients with accurate and straight-forward information will make a difference in their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
The abstract of the publication cited above is:
BACKGROUND: Cancer receives a great deal of news media attention. Although approximately half of all US patients with cancer die of their illness or of related complications, it is unknown whether reports in the news media reflect this reality. METHODS: To determine how cancer news coverage reports about cancer care and outcomes, we conducted a content analysis of US cancer news reporting in 8 large-readership newspapers and 5 national magazines. Trained coders determined the proportion of articles reporting about cancer survival, cancer death and dying, aggressive cancer treatment, cancer treatment failure, adverse events of cancer treatment, and end-of-life palliative or hospice care. RESULTS: Of 436 articles about cancer, 140 (32.1%; 95% confidence interval [CI], 28%-37%) focused on survival and only 33 (7.6 %; 5%-10%) focused on death and dying (P < .001, chi(2) test). Only 57 articles (13.1%; 10%-17%) reported that aggressive cancer treatments can fail, and 131 (30.0%; 26%-35%) reported that aggressive treatments can result in adverse events. Although most articles (249 of 436 [57.1%]; 95% CI, 52%-62%) discussed aggressive treatments exclusively, almost none (2 of 436; [0.5%]; 0%-2%) discussed end-of-life palliative or hospice care exclusively (P < .001, chi(2) test), and only a few (11 of 436 [2.5%]; 1%-6%) discussed aggressive treatment and end-of-life care. CONCLUSIONS: News reports about cancer frequently discuss aggressive treatment and survival but rarely discuss treatment failure, adverse events, end-of-life care, or death. These portrayals of cancer care in the news media may give patients an inappropriately optimistic view of cancer treatment, outcomes, and prognosis.
Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 19104, USA. [email protected]