Breast cancer advocate tells LA TV station they're hyping false hope

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Last Sunday I spoke at the National Breast Cancer Coalition Foundation annual conference. There were about 800 people in the audience, so it’s understandable if I didn’t meet (or don’t remember meeting) breast cancer advocate Sandra Spivey who was in the crowd.

She got back home from the meeting and did what I told all 800 attendees to do: if you see something inaccurate, incomplete, imbalanced in local health news coverage, let the editor/producer/reporter/news director know about it or you’ll continue to get what you deserve for not speaking out.

So she did.

KNBC breast cancer screenshot.jpg She saw a story on NBC4- KNBC in Los Angeles talking about “cures” with a “major breakthrough” of a “groundbreaking” tumor freezing technique. But she didn’t see any of our ten criteria from addressed in the story.

KNBC breast cancer headline.jpg

Sandra Spivey KNBC comment.jpg So look what she did: she posted a comment on the KNBC website (seen at left), calling the story “false hope” and posting our ten criteria right on the KNBC website! She was clearly listening when I told the multitude at the meeting in DC: imagine what would happen if all of you and all of your breast cancer advocate colleagues back home did this!

Howard Beale Mad as Hell.JPGJust like Howard Beale in the movie, “Network,” she got out of her chair, went over to the window (her computer in this case) and yelled, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

God love you, Sandra. I wish there were thousands more like you. And I know there are. I hope the National Breast Cancer Coalition tells this story to all of its members. It’s the wisdom of the crowds, and it reflects what NBCC president and founder Fran Visco told her members on Sunday, “We need to do more, to do it better, and to do it all differently. We’re not here to be popular or well-liked.”

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Comments (18)

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May 28, 2010 at 8:28 am

Fantastic! If everyone asked these questions for all medical topics, and drug treatments such as Vioxx, Avandia, Seroquel, Zyprexa to name a few. This is how I basically think, great story!


May 28, 2010 at 10:26 am

Wow, thanks for sharing this. Congratulations on making such an impact on this person to take a stand against poor health reporting. We definitely need more Sandras in the world. I mean, seriously, this story is garbage. Here are my additional questions:
What kind of breast cancer did this woman have?
What stage was it (small doesn’t mean everything)?
What about the others in enrolled in the trial? Are we really supposed to believe that tumors can now just “melt” away as insinuated by this totally imbalanced article?
As a health communicator, I, of course do not. But the audience for this article is the average person. Sandra is right in pointing out that this article offers false hope for women.
I am pro-clinical trials, especially for breast cancer. But, let’s not make news out of nothing, or at least be honest about a study’s limitations.

Wellescent Health Blog

May 28, 2010 at 11:45 am

Hyped reporting is an unfortunate side effect of trying to hold eyeballs and excite people about health research despite the reality that such research involves slow progress in most situations. Though it is important to bring people the news about intriguing research, the need for a balanced approach with grounding in the current reality is a must.

Marilyn Mann

May 30, 2010 at 3:56 pm

Good work Sandra!


June 1, 2010 at 8:39 am

Great set of questions for any supposed new “breakthrough” in medicine. I copied them down, but there were only nine listed by Sandra Spivey. What is the tenth one? Thanks.

Gary Schwitzer

June 1, 2010 at 2:16 pm

* What’s the total cost?
* How often do benefits occur?
* How often do harms occur?
* How strong is the evidence?
* Is this condition exaggerated?
* Are there alternative options?
* Is this really a new approach?
* Is it available to me?
* Who’s promoting this?
* Do they have a conflict of interest?


June 1, 2010 at 5:24 pm

Hi Gary, I’m not sure if you’ve mentioned this before in your blog, but bad medical reporting/journalism in the States affects other countries as well. A few days ago I was watching this tv report in Australia about some new breast cancer vaccine. It was obvious that the footage and material was not original (as it is with a lot of medical news here) and the way it was used did not even address any of the 10 important questions.
It is frustrating to watch ‘news’ like these, and more so that it is absorbed without much thought about the validity of its claims… ( i could go on and on about this…)


June 1, 2010 at 9:01 pm

Thanks for blogging about my feedback to NBC Los Angeles. I think it may have made an impact. Today’s TV report about breast cancer vaccines by the same reporter addressed more of the questions from
They showed videos of mice (although these appeared to be pet shop mice and not the kind used in research) and reinforced that it was only used in mice so far. They even gave a timeframe for potential availability.
Nothing on cost or who is promoting it. But progress.

Eta Brand

June 4, 2010 at 7:54 pm

I am a university trained naturopath and public health graduate in Australia. I work with many cancer patients in my clinic. Some using conventional treatments and CAM approaches, some only using CAM approaches. I use evidence based information wherever possible to minimise harm. I believe harm is caused to patients and their carers when the media inappropriately promote treatments.
There should be penalties to this kind of reporting. In Australia the same media reporting problems abound. Lots of hollow promises, breakthroughs every other day. How do we find a way to bring some controls into the media? Not sure there is a simple answer.
This week I present to a group of cancer patients in my local area on ‘Preserving Quality of Life’.
What journalists may not know is that honest reporting may actually enhance rather than detract from the stress of a life threatening diagnosis. When will journalists begin to understand the true ramifications of their work in relation to cancer patients? I hope sooner rather than later!