Judge and Jury: Why these cancer stories cause more harm than good

Stories of the success of the drug tamoxifen in treating breast cancer are another example of the press being over eager to report, causing heartache to sufferers, says Charlene Bargeron, managing director of Greenlines Healthcare Communications.

Stories of the success of the drug tamoxifen in treating breast

cancer are another example of the press being over eager to report,

causing heartache to sufferers, says Charlene Bargeron, managing

director of Greenlines Healthcare Communications.



The story about stopping the tamoxifen breast cancer trial because it

was thought to be unethical not to offer the drug to women taking a

placebo broke in the US and 12 hours later was front-page news

worldwide.



The Washington Post ran the front page story on Monday 6 April, as did

USA Today following briefings. Later that same afternoon a press

conference was held at the National Cancer Institute with simultaneous

live transmission on CNN. The story appeared in the UK on Tuesday 7

April. Would UK trialists also abandon the trial? The controversy

began.



Every UK national paper took the opportunity to run in-depth articles on

breast cancer. Were the press just preying on women’s fears? Since the

early 1990s stories have generated fear among women.



Part of the problem is the speed and excitement with which stories are

covered by the media. Breast cancer kills 26,000 women a year. It is

scary.



The broadsheets have the space to research and cover stories, but the

tabloids go for headline impact with a big readership. Radio compounds

the problem with short attention-grabbing snippets which leave the

listener wanting more information but not knowing where to get it.

Journalists keen to tell it all are sometimes oblivious to the heartache

they generate.



And what about women and their families? There are those in the

prevention study caught in an ego struggle between prima donna surgeons,

and those concerned they may be at high risk and confused about what to

do.



How could this be considered a great PR coup when getting a story on

breast cancer in the media is a bit like shooting ducks in a barrel?

Anybody involved in this area of health will know how careful they need

to be with disclosing information to the press. The subject is very

complicated and cannot be easily understood in a few soundbites or

headlines.



The belief here in the UK is that the US researchers deliberately used

the press interest in breast cancer to further their own aims and steal

a march on researchers in the UK. Such glory seeking may, in the

long-term, jeopardise the global trial results and, in the short-term

confuse an already perplexed and frightened audience.



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