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Cancer Articles Tend to Focus on Positive Outcomes

Newspaper, magazine stories shy away from negative side effects, end-of-life care, review finds

TUESDAY, March 16 (HealthDay News) -- People often complain that media reports slant towards bad news, but when it comes to cancer most newspaper and magazine stories may be overly optimistic, U.S. researchers suggest.

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.

The University of Pennsylvania team analyzed 436 cancer-related stories published in eight large newspapers and five national magazines between 2005 and 2007. The articles were most likely to focus on breast cancer (35 percent) or prostate cancer (nearly 15 percent), while 20 percent discussed cancer in general.

There were 140 stories (32 percent) that highlighted patients surviving or being cured of cancer, 33 stories (7.6 percent) that dealt with one or more patients who were dying or had died of cancer, and 10 articles (2.3 percent) that focused on both survival and death, the study authors noted.

"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 colleagues. "The findings are also surprising given that scientists, media critics and the lay public repeatedly criticize the news for focusing on death."

Among the other findings:

  • Only 13 percent (57 articles) mentioned that some cancers are incurable and aggressive cancer treatments may not extend life.
  • Less than one-third (131 articles) mentioned the negative side effects associated with cancer treatments (such as nausea, pain or hair loss).
  • While more than half (249 articles, or 57 percent) reported on aggressive treatments exclusively, only two discussed end-of-life care exclusively and only 11 reported on both aggressive treatments and end-of-life care.

More information

The U.S. National Cancer Institute has more about cancer.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: JAMA/Archives journals, news release, March 16, 2010

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