Cancer is always in the news. Yet although nearly half of all US cancer patients die of their disease or related complications, no one seemed to know whether news reports reflected this reality.
Jessica Fishman and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania decided to look into the matter by reviewing the content of cancer news stories in 8 high-circulation newspapers and 5 popular magazines.
The scientists identified 2,228 cancer-related articles appearing between 2005 and 2007, and focused on a randomly selected sample of 436 of them. They found that in general, the stories were overly optimistic about survival, more likely to focus on aggressive treatments and rarely covered negative things like death, treatment failure and adverse events. Almost none of the stories covered end-of-life issues.
In particular, 140 stories focused on people who survived or were cured of the disease, while 33 focused on people who were dying or had died of cancer. Just 57 articles mentioned that aggressive cancer treatments can fail. A majority of articles (249) discussed aggressive treatment exclusively, but only 57 reported that such treatments can fail to extend life or cure the disease, or that some cancers are incurable. Just 131 mentioned adverse events associated with treatment, and a grand total of 2 articles focused on palliative or hospice care exclusively.
“These portrayals of cancer care in the news media may give patients an inappropriately optimistic view of cancer treatment, outcomes, and prognosis,” the authors write in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
“For many patients with cancer, it is important to know about palliative and hospice care because this information can help them make decisions that realistically reflect their prognosis and the risks and potential benefits of treatment.”