Wednesday, December 16, 2015

When a "good news" story can be cruel

There is an understandable tendency for the public to take great interest in the health issues of our former national leaders.  Once they are out of office, political animosities die away, and we want to think about them more as people and, indeed, to express our concern for their well-being. That's a gracious and lovely sentiment.

A problem can arise, though, from the media's coverage of such a beloved figure--a tendency to overstate good news surrounding that person's medical treatment. Harold DeMonaco over at Health News Review offered an excellent synopsis of such coverage in a recent article, "What the media got wrong about Jimmy Carter’s cancer 'cure.'"

The lede:

If you watched or read the news this week, you probably heard a story about former President Jimmy Carter’s ongoing battle with metastatic melanoma. . . . On Sunday morning, he told his bible class, “My most recent MRI brain scan did not reveal any signs of the original cancer spots nor any new ones.”  For Mr. Carter and his family, this is wonderful news. . . . Technically, Mr. Carter is in remission. We can all hope that his continued treatment with Keytruda will prevent additional lesions from appearing. Importantly, Mr. Carter did not use the word “cure.”

He then notes:

The media picked up on the news very quickly and with the usual unfortunate headlines. “How a new therapy kicked Carter’s cancer “ from CBS News, Here’s a look at Keytruda, the drug Jimmy Carter said made his tumors vanish from NBC News, “Jimmy Carter is ‘cancer free': Miracle or just science?” from CNN, and former President Jimmy Carter Says He Is Free of Cancer from The New York Times.

Offering a dose of realism, Harold reminds us:

[T]he bottom line is that 18/81 subjects in this clinical trial had a response (partial or total) that lasted from 6 to 36 weeks. Seventy-six percent did not respond. The results that Mr. Carter has achieved, unfortunately, are not necessarily representative of what the typical patient can expect.
What’s more, as NBC pointed out in its coverage, there’s no way of knowing whether it’s the drug or the radiation therapy and surgery that cleared all detectable traces of President Carter’s cancer. 

He concludes:

[It's] possible that some of these headlines represent a willful misrepresentation of the truth by the media in order to boost readership. Nigel Hawkes, a freelance health reporter, hinted as much when he spoke at  The Lancet Health of the Nation Summit in 2009.

“It is not our job to satisfy you [meaning those on the podium representing medicine] but to keep our readers reading and our viewers viewing,” he said. “The more responsible the press becomes, the less readers seem to like it.”

The NPR commentary by Barbara King referenced earlier should be read by every journalist who posted a story about Mr. Carter’s treatment and by every editor who insisted on a using a headline that did not match the reality.

As King, a cancer survivor, points out, the “celebratory responses built around Carter’s cancer being ‘gone’ are in real danger of swamping an accurate understanding of cancer biology and of what many patients experience as they cope with cancer or cancer recovery.”

I hope that reporters and editors will learn that a good news story about a particular celebrity can inadvertently be a cruel story to others reading it.


Karen M ‏@karenmeth said...

From Twitter:

I have metastatic melanoma. Was so excited to read the headlines but devastated w/the details - Keytruda didn't work for me.

Ralf Lippold ‏@RalfLippold said...

From Twitter:

#Cancer is too serious to play with words.

Carole said...

Exactly what you felt and shared was what was going through my mind. What medicine works for one might not work for another!
I wondered what that news would mean to some and how it would affect others. Of course I'm overjoyed for him, but I'm deeply
disappointed for you and others. From the depths of my soul, and with all the love, compassion and empathy one person can have for another- I pray for a cure for all cancers, for everyone who is sick, ill, and so sadly suffers.
And Ralf could not be more RIGHT !!!!

Emily said...

As someone, at the moment, in remission from ovarian cancer I was skeptical when reading the news about Jimmy Carter. Because I've been through years of ups and downs with my prognosis, it helped me realize how irresponsible to use words like "cure" or miracle" when it comes to patients with stage 4 cancer. How sad for those afflicted to believe this without reservation, only to be let down later. It should be taken with the same grain of salt if someone proclaimed "you will never get cancer".

Thomas said...

Mr. Hawkes nailed it. The "media" could care less about the truth, and has abdicated their responsibility to inform and educate the public. Having a free press just seems to give them permission to lie and deny responsibility for the consequences.