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Journalists Acknowledge Their Own Battles in War on Cancer at NCCN Annual Conference

HOLLYWOOD, Fla., March 15, 2007 — News reporting prompts patient deaths when misleading “breakthroughs” are reported. Conversely, lack of media attention enables the all-but-silent shutdown of almost 100 clinical trials because of budget cuts at the National Institutes of Health. These two self-criticisms – and others – sprang up from a rare, candid look at how journalists cover cancer in a roundtable at the National Comprehensive Cancer Network’s 12th Annual Conference.

Sam Donaldson, moderating the journalists’ dialogue, personified the strict newsman applying rigorous standards to coverage. But Donaldson, ABC News veteran correspondent and anchor, is also a melanoma survivor. He illustrated the mindset of the patient hungry for word of the latest scientific advance. In terms of beating his own cancer, he said, “If someone said [it would help to] flap your bed sheet at the Aurora Borealis, I would do it!”

Even so, the dangers of over-hyping of the latest laboratory breakthrough are sadly apparent. “Many thousands of women were killed” after the introduction of high-dose chemotherapy with autologous bone marrow transplant (HDC/ABMT) for high-risk breast cancer, said chief science correspondent Bob Bazell of NBC News. Too few journalists were skeptical of the treatment, preferring instead to demonize the health-insurance industry for refusing to pay for the now-discredited procedure.

In contrast, a perhaps underreported story involves the state of federal funding for cancer research. Donaldson threw out the challenge, “There’s a resource we all know can help — money. How do we convene the administration to fund cancer research with all of the other budget demands?” Only 12 percent of peer-reviewed potential studies that scientists send to Washington, D.C., to compete for funding can currently be underwritten, Bazell said. The National Cancer Institute recently shut down some 93 clinical trials for lack of money, said Nancy Davenport-Ennis of the National Patient Advocate Foundation.

“The only way we are going to see change is if the patients themselves take to the streets,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Amy Dockser Marcus of The Wall Street Journal. “I want to see the cancer patients become like AIDS activists. I can write and write and write until my face turns blue, but I don’t think anything is going to change unless the community of survivors and the people who love them says, ‘We’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.’ ”

Other media observations included:

  • Continuing to characterize cancer stories in terms of President Nixon’s 1971 “War on Cancer” rather than shifting to the metaphor of wellness and prevention. Journalists often focus on discoveries when “in fact, it would be more effective if we got people to quit smoking and lose weight,” Catherine Arnst of Business Week said.
  • Paying too little attention to local TV station coverage of health, which is where most Americans get their medical news, said Robert C. Young, M.D., president of Fox Chase Cancer Center. Local TV health coverage is often the weakest media link, he said, so bad that “frequently you can’t tell whether they are talking about a human or a mouse or a Petri dish.”
  • Making story choices based on “jazz.” Manny Alvarez, M.D., of Fox News said, “TV is a sexy business, and medicine is not that sexy. When medicine doesn’t have a sexy story, it doesn’t get told.”

Consumers of news can evaluate a news story’s worth by looking for signposts of quality, Young advised. These include whether the reporter has identified whether the scientist or physician is profiting financially from the organization that commissioned the study; whether the headline is true to the story’s content or is a gross overstatement; and whether the story includes varying viewpoints and reactions that put the development in context.

“We have to keep prioritizing to people that health is important,” said Alvarez.

About the National Comprehensive Cancer Network

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network® (NCCN®), a not-for-profit alliance of 27 leading cancer centers, is dedicated to improving the quality and effectiveness of care provided to patients with cancer. Through the leadership and expertise of clinical professionals at NCCN Member Institutions, NCCN develops resources that present valuable information to the numerous stakeholders in the health care delivery system. As the arbiter of high-quality cancer care, NCCN promotes the importance of continuous quality improvement and recognizes the significance of creating clinical practice guidelines appropriate for use by patients, clinicians, and other health care decision-makers. The primary goal of all NCCN initiatives is to improve the quality, effectiveness, and efficiency of oncology practice so patients can live better lives. For more information, visit NCCN.org.

The NCCN Member Institutions are:

  • Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center
  • Case Comprehensive Cancer Center/University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center and Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute
  • City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center | Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center
  • Duke Cancer Institute
  • Fox Chase Cancer Center
  • Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah
  • Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center/Seattle Cancer Care Alliance
  • The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins
  • Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University
  • Mayo Clinic Cancer Center
  • Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
  • Moffitt Cancer Center
  • The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center - James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute
  • Roswell Park Cancer Institute
  • Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine
  • St. Jude Children's Research Hospital/The University of Tennessee Health Science Center
  • Stanford Cancer Institute
  • University of Alabama at Birmingham Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center
  • UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • University of Colorado Cancer Center
  • University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
  • University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center
  • Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center
  • Yale Cancer Center/Smilow Cancer Hospital