Cancer Reporting Needs Less Hype & More Hope
Every year, hundreds of articles are published touting a "revolutionary" new treatment for cancer. Yet despite the uplifting language, cancer continues to kill over a half a million people in the United States every year. Either something is wrong with the treatments, or something is wrong with the coverage.
According to a recent study, the latter seems to be the case.
This past summer, Case Western Reserve University medical student Matthew Abola and Oregon Health and Sciences University Assistant Professor Vinay Prasad scoured Google News for articles on cancer treatments published over four days (from June 21 to June 25) in the wake of the American Society of Clinical Oncology conference. Specifically, they wanted to examine the articles that used superlative terms like “breakthrough,” “miracle,” “cure,” “revolutionary,” “groundbreaking,” and “marvel.”
The duo discovered 94 articles from 66 separate news outlets which used superlatives to describe cancer treatments. In the majority of cases (55%), superlatives were used by journalists, but physicians were guilty of using flowery language in a little over a quarter of the documented instances.
Prasad and Abola also found that 18 of the 36 drugs described with superlatives had not even received FDA approval. More alarmingly, five of the 36 drugs did not even have any clinical data from human trials to support their effectiveness.
The most hyped treatment, a combination of ipilimumab and nivolumab, was hailed with superlatives in more than twenty instances. In a clinical trial with more than a hundred patients suffering from melanoma, the treatment improved survival by an average of 4.2 months compared to controls. That's certainly praiseworthy, but it is by no means a "revolutionary" improvement, especially considering that 43 percent of subjects assigned to the treatment discontinued use as a "result of serious adverse reactions."
The persistent disconnect between reality and reporting is problematic.
"Some of the drugs are actually very excellent drugs. It’s reasonable to feel excited about them," Prasad told the Washington Post. "But you want to balance that against reasonable expectations. You want hope, but realistic hope. That’s what we all strive for."
And there is good reason for optimism. Between early detection, preventative measures, and improved treatments, the cancer mortality rate has fallen from a peak of 215 deaths per 100,000 people in 1991 to 172 deaths per 100,000 people in 2010. Just like the tortoise in Aesop's fable, who beat the hare in a race by continually putting one reptilian foot in front of the other, we are slowly, but surely winning the war on cancer.
Maybe one day scientists will stumble upon a true "miracle" cure. But until that actually happens, anyone reporting on cancer treatments has a duty to cancer patients, as well as their friends and families, to be write within the bounds of evidence, spreading genuine hope, not false hope. In 2014, Oliver Childs tackled the notion of "miracle" cancer cures over at Cancer Research UK:
"We only hear about the success stories – what about the people who have tried it and have not survived? The dead can’t speak, and often people who make bold claims for ‘miracle’ cures only pick their best cases, without presenting the full picture.
This highlights the importance of publishing data from peer-reviewed, scientifically rigorous lab research and clinical trials. Firstly, because conducting proper clinical studies enables researchers to prove that a prospective cancer treatment is safe and effective. And secondly, because publishing these data allows doctors around the world to judge for themselves and use it for the benefit of their patients.
This is the standard to which all cancer treatments should be held."
Anyone reporting on cancer treatments should keep this advice in mind, and keep the hype to themselves.
Source: Matthew Abola & Vinay Prasad. The Use of Superlatives in Cancer Research. JAMA Oncol. October 29, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2015.3931