New research finds that when the media covers cancer, they like to accentuate the positive. “The study authors found that articles were more likely to highlight aggressive treatment and survival, with far less attention given to cancer death, treatment failure, adverse events and end-of-life palliative or hospice care, according to their report in the March 22 issue of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine,” writes US News and World Report.

In addition, 32 percent of articles focused on individuals being cured of cancer, while less than 8 percent discussed someone dying of cancer. “It is surprising that few articles discuss death and dying, considering that half of all patients diagnosed as having cancer will not survive,” wrote Jessica Fishman and the study’s other authors.

The cancer newsletter HemOncToday reports:

A trend toward reporting on aggressive cancer treatments and survival instead of alternatives was found. The researchers wrote that this trend was “noteworthy, given that unrealistic information may mislead the public about the trade-offs between attempts at heroic cures and hospice care.”

Only 13.1% of articles reported that aggressive cancer treatments can fail to cure cancer, aggressive treatments can fail to extend a patient’s life or that some cancers are incurable. Adverse effects of cancer treatments, such as neuropathy, hair loss, nausea or pain, were only mentioned in 30% of articles.

Finally, the alternatives to aggressive treatments were rarely discussed. Compared with the use of aggressive treatments, which were discussed in 57.1% of articles, end-of-life care was discussed exclusively in only 0.5% of articles.

“The absence of reporting about hospice and palliative care is significant, given the numerous well-documented benefits for patients and family members,” the researchers wrote. “Specifically, hospice programs deliver high-quality care at the end of life, with excellent patient and family satisfaction, reduced costs and decreased suffering at the end of life.”

Having been a card carrying member of the media (literally), I understand how this overly positive reporting on cancer might come about. We want to tell positive, uplifting stories much more than we want to tell realistic and often sad stories. We like to tell the comeback story, whether in sports or in medicine, much more than the routine and expected ones.

(On the other hand, though, the media can be overly negative too when it comes to health issues. Swine flu pandemic, anyone?)

Still, when it comes to cancer and other medical topics we do a disservice to people by focusing on successful aggressive therapy, especially if the successes are rare. As a result, we tend to think that someone else’s cancer diagnosis is only bad news because of the surgery, chemo, and radiation. If the diagnosis is our own, we may chose aggressive therapy that ends up doing no good, despite our belief in it. The treatment is rough, we often think, but the recovery will come.

Well, not so fast.

Cancer is different than a cold or the flu. Overly positive media coverage encourages a belief that medicine can work wonders. This is bad because we so desperately want to believe it. We don’t want to think about our friends, co-workers, neighbors going through these life-or-death situations. If we face it ourselves, we naturally seek out reasons to think that all will be well. Otherwise, we’re forced to think about our own mortality. It imposes an obligation on us to offer some help to those with cancer, encouragement, or sincere prayer on his or her behalf. It forces us to talk with someone with cancer knowing that this person may very well die. It forces us to be prepared for our own deaths

Put simply, we don’t want to do this. We would all rather–news media included–turn our thoughts elsewhere.

It is tempting here to say that we must confront our own fears of dying in order to be good neighbors to those who may have cancer. Or because we must face the facts of our own diagnosis, if the cancer is in our own bodies. This is all true.

But it’s just as true that if we do face these facts, we also become better people, better able to love our neighbor as ourselves. And we lead better lives as people who are able to look death in the eye and face it unflinchingly–in the hope and confidence of our Lord who has put death to death.


2 thoughts on “News Media Focuses on the Positive when Covering Cancer

  1. Very interesting post. It’s not just the media that gives us the good news. Friends and everyone around me tell me they know I’ll be healed. I consider the fact that I know a very few people who have lived with ovarian cancer and have been healed. It’s a killer, and I know it.

    You made me think about when to stop treatments. Chad and i have talked a lot about that. We hope we will know. The treatments during this second round have been so horrible, I can barely think about them without getting nauseated and frightened.

    My doctor has already mentioned palliative care. I don’t think I’m ready for that, but in the next year or so I may be.

    Again interesting post for someone who has been considering all these things.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Marty. I don’t think the media is unique here; it simply reflects our culture’s attitudes.
    I’ll be praying for you as you deal with the treatments and as you consider when to stop.

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