Cancer expert says there aren't enough caveats in cancer news

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Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, in a column headlined, “Bad medical writing hurts public health,” reflects on this week’s news coverage from the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

He says such major medical meetings “have more and more become venues for drug companies and medical device manufacturers to tell physicians about their drugs and medical hardware. Today, much of the presented research is sponsored by industry, and these medical meetings are increasingly an opportunity for companies to make a name for themselves by promoting their products.”

More from Brawley:


“Successful promotion of positive findings through meeting abstracts and press releases can double or triple a small company’s share price. But observers note a troubling trend. It is a shame that the desire to pump up a stock price often leads to over-promotion and exaggeration of paltry scientific findings.

Reporters must understand that the motivation of every scientific report must be questioned as part of routine due diligence. The caveats from each report must also be clearly detailed in each story. From where I sit, all too often, that is not happening.

This combination of scientists and businessmen enthusiastically promoting products or themselves with sales pitches, and inexperienced reporters struggling to make sense of their claims, has led to some unfortunate articles.

I was motivated to write this after reading articles in reputable newspapers in the United States and Europe that a cure for breast cancer was on the horizon and a blood test was coming to market that could detect lung cancer early and save lives.

Truth be told, a lab cured breast cancer in six mice. But translating these findings to humans is difficult, and experience has taught us that it likely will never happen. Some of these articles also failed to say that this is a very early piece of scientific progress at best — and may not even be progress.

As for the blood tests, I have read reports of some that are somewhat effective in finding lung cancer. But the articles failed to point out that any test will require years of more development to determine whether it’s useful. They also failed to report that the study showed that the test was no more accurate than X-rays, which are not recommended by any major medical organization.

Unfortunately, by the time measured voices put these stories into perspective, the media have moved on to a new story. The end result of all this is very harmful. The nonscientific public gets misled, and some of those folks who have an interest in a specific disease get their hopes up, only to be disappointed.”

This was an opinion column on It’s interesting to note a couple of comments left by readers:

• “Anyone else find it ironic that the example this man uses of bad medical writing (cancer cures found in mice) can be found on CNN?”

• “Very very very good article. Unfortunately CNN is plagued with poor medical reporters who misrepresent published articles and fail to explain the full extent of the findings, methodology, and limitations.”

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Comments (4)

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Gregory D. Pawelski

June 9, 2010 at 10:28 am

Dr. Brawley’s colleague at ACS, Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, commented on his private blog that as is the custom at an ASCO meeting, other experts are asked to give a formal review of a presentation and provide their opinions on the significance of the results.
These discussions are not generally available to anyone beforehand, unlike the press conferences that highlight the more important studies at the meeting. The net result is that the media hear the positive results of a study, but don’t have all the information that might balance their reports.
By the time a formal discussion is offered after an abstract presentation, the media reports have been filed and published and it’s on to the next story. If an expert publicly pokes a hole in a study, the only ones who hear about it usually are those sitting in the audience when it happens.
Usually, these discussions are very supportive and encouraging about the results of a study. Sometimes they are a bit more conservative in their interpretation of the practical impact of the study. And sometimes, they change the assessment of a particularly good study from a “game-changer” to “not yet ready for prime time.”

Paul Scott

June 9, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Before we trip over ourselves in lauding the ACS for their skepticism about breakthrough treatments (albeit welcome), it might add balance to ask why it retains such a reflexive skepticism about environmental causes of cancer. The recent president’s panel report on the topic was actually attacked by the organization, ostensibly because it took readers “off-message” (my quotes) about modifiable lifestyle changes that can reduce cancer. The ACS apparently thinks we are too stupid to handle more than a set list of cancers and causes to worry about. And of course, raising the issue of environmental causes of cancer puts businesses in the spotlight. At the very least, their dismissive treatment of the research implicating cell phones in brain tumors has been really quite bizarre.