Penn Researchers: Cancer News Is Potentially Misleading; Stories Rarely Look at Palliative or End-of-Life Care

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Media Contact:Joe Diorio | | 215-746-1798March 16, 2010


PHILADELPHIA –- News coverage of aggressive cancer treatments may give the public unrealistic hope that these treatments actually work, according to a study from the University of Pennsylvania. The research team, led by Penn’s Jessica Fishman, Thomas Ten Have and David Casarett, looked at news stories about cancer that were reported in major news magazines and large-city daily newspapers.

The article, “Cancer and the Media: How Does the News Report on Treatment and Outcomes?” noted that “very few news reports about cancer discuss death and dying, and even those that do generally do not mention palliative and hospice care.” The study, its methodology and results are reported in the March 22 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

In addition, the study finds that news about treatment failure, adverse events and end-of-life care are covered far less. The findings also showed that:

• Although 32 percent of the articles focused on survival, only 8 percent covered death and dying; this despite the fact that half of all cancer patients will die of their illness.

• While most stories discussed aggressive cancer treatments, only 2 percent discussed end-of-life, palliative or hospice care.

• 13 percent reported that aggressive cancer treatments can fail, and just 30 percent reported that aggressive treatments can result in adverse effects.

“The tendency of the news to report on aggressive cancer treatments and survival, but not on alternatives, is … noteworthy given that unrealistic information may mislead the public about the trade-offs between attempts at heroic cures and hospice care,” the authors of the study wrote.

The team looked at a random sample of 436 cancer-related articles from 2, 228 stories from 2005 to 2007 in Newsweek, Parade, People, Redbook and Time magazines; the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Daily Herald-Chicago, New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. The selection of newspapers and magazines was based on previous research indicating that print publications were the most likely sources for this type of information.

“The absence of reporting about hospice and palliative care is significant given the numerous well-documented benefits for patients and family members,” the authors wrote. “For many patients with cancer, it is important to know (this) … because it can help them make decisions that realistically reflect their prognosis and the risks and potential benefits of treatment.”

The study was supported in part by research funds from the Center of Excellence in Cancer Communication Research at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication and from the American Cancer Society.

The article is available at