Time Magazine Lost Its Head in the Cancer-Cure Clouds

Talk about extremes. Last month we championed an exhaustive examination published in Time magazine of how health-care costs are unnecessarily inflated. But Time’s April 1 cover story, “How to Cure Cancer,” is more of an April Fool’s joke than a conscientious news story. It has been judged by Slate.com’s Seth Mnookin as possibly the worst magazine cover of the year.

And that might be a compliment.

The normally careful Time has indulged in the all-too-common media practice of medical news hype. As Slate says, “Time’s coverline is wrong, grandiose and cruel.”

The clarion cover title is followed by an asterisk directing readers to a smaller sub-headline that reads, “Yes, it’s now possible, thanks to new cancer dream teams that are delivering better results faster.”

It’s as if Time wants to reinforce its idiocy: That claim is demonstrably false.

As Mnookin points out, of course there have been advances in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. But he estimates that 580,000 Americans will die this year from cancer, a number higher than fatalities from chronic lower respiratory diseases, strokes, accidents, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes combined. Our success in treating tumors in late-stage cancers is, as he quotes the director of Yale’s Biology of Reproductive Tract Cancers Program, “abysmal.”

Time compounds its error by focusing on a foundation established by entertainment industry figures seeking to speed up cancer cures by funding collaborative research that will produce results in three years. As we noted in our April Patient Safety newsletter, superior, substantial results take time; they require an investment not only of money, but patience.

Granting so much magazine acreage to an organization that believes curing cancer is taking too long largely because the research community is fragmented and competitive is incomplete reporting and misleading. “There’s the potential for a real impact [on developing new cancer treatments] if there’s organizational momentum to pick up scientific strands, political strands, and epidemiological strands and weave them together,” Siddhartha Mukherjee told Slate. He’s a Columbia University hematologist and oncologist who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” “But to what extent were organizational barriers keeping us from having more successful solutions against various cancers?” he asked. “This is not just an organizational problem.”

Time’s is only the latest bully pulpit pronouncement that put the cancer-cure cart in front of the horse. As Mnookin points out, even the former director of the National Cancer Institute boasted in 2003 that the NCI would “eliminate suffering and death” from cancer by 2015.

The harm in such exaggeration is that people either stop taking even realistic claims seriously, or fail to pay attention at all. The harm is that funding for future cancer research could be compromised. The further harm is that outrageous claims are hurtful to people who are suffering from cancer, and their loved ones.

“It made me bristle,” Lisa Bonchek Adams told Slate. The 43-year-old mother of three has Stage IV breast cancer. “It means getting messages and calls from people pointing to that and saying, ‘See, you need to have hope-there’s going to be a cure.’ ”

It’s not true, “at least not for me,” she said. “Talking about a sudden cure-it’s magical thinking. My hope is not for a cure, it’s for treatment that can help people with side effects and ultimately treatment that may make this a manageable disease.”

But as Mnookin concludes, “that doesn’t make for a snappy coverline-although it does have the virtue of being true.”

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