I live in the Twin Cities, so I couldn’t avoid hearing about the University of Minnesota research paper in Nature this week, “APOBEC3B is an enzymatic source of mutation in breast cancer.” Had I lived anywhere else, I probably wouldn’t have heard anything about it.
This laboratory finding was reported by the CBS TV station, WCCO, as “a big breakthrough in breast cancer.” As so often happens with TV health news stories reported by someone who doesn’t cover health/medicine fulltime, it is not the taped scripted segment that causes problems. It is the live chit-chat before and after the taped piece. In that chit-chat, the reporter said:
“We’re talking about real results in a couple of years from now but nonetheless the researchers say this is still a big deal.” (My note: Mind you, this was a laboratory finding.)
“The researchers would like to see more testing, first in animals, then in humans, and then hopefully a clinical trial in years to come.” (My note: this is where/when any “real results” would start to come in. And, FYI, the human trials ARE the clinical trials. Those are not separate stages.)
The anchor asked:
“In terms of breast cancer breakthroughs, where would this rank?”
The reporter hedged before saying:
“The researchers hope it’s a really high breakthrough.” (My note: What would a “low” breakthrough be?)
Results of a Google search suggest that the paper received very little attention elsewhere. In one story, a UK professor wisely said:
“There’s a long way to go before we get a handle on the cancer’s true genetic complexity, let alone turn this into treatments to help patients.”
The Minnesota Daily newspaper actually used the word “cure” four times in its story about this laboratory-only finding, including in its headline.
A veteran health care reporter for the Star Tribune delivered a far more measured story.
The words used in health care stories matter. See my article, “The 7 Words You Shouldn’t Use in Medical News,” from more than a decade ago. “Cure” and “breakthrough” are two of the words that patients nominated for inclusion on that list.
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