This article describes brachytherapy, a radiation treatment that is gaining popularity for some breast cancers. It reports that it is more convenient due to its shorter treatment period and because it appears to expose surrounding tissues to less radiation damage.
But a lack of reportorial rigor creates an overly rosy view of the procedure that could lead readers to believe the treatment is as effective as external beam radiation.
The article would have been stronger if it had interviewed experts who are familiar with the available data on the technique, and those who wrote clinical guidelines for its use.
While the article states that long-term data on safety and efficacy is not available, the story emphasizes the treatment’s convenience in a way that leads readers to believe that the comparison is between two equally effective treatments and the decision can be driven by questions of convenience.
In fact the decision is between one technique whose safety and efficacy is known versus one whose safety and efficacy is not.
The danger may be that women are unknowingly choosing a less effective technique based on convenience. The article should have acknowledged this.
The article does not report how much the procedure costs or how it compares to conventional radiation therapy. While price would not be a driver of this decision, price information is easy and valuable to report.
The article includes no data on the benefits of the treatment.
The most important potential harm of brachytherapy would be a lack of efficacy–that is, a patient would choose it due to its greater convenience, despite what could be a lower success rate. Given the lack of long-term data on efficacy available, this is a significant shortcoming.
The article does not acknowledge other potential harms of brachytherapy when used for breast and prostate cancer.
The article presents no evidence about the efficacy or safety of the technique beyond the reports of two individuals who received it and oncologists’ comments about it.
The reporter writes,
Although there are no large-scale national results, doctors say studies have shown brachytherapy to be as effective as traditional radiation therapy.
It is not clear who these doctors are or what studies they are referring to. This is not satisfactory.
There are more data avialable on safety and efficacy, though not conclusive. In fact, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did a story on the same topic a week earlier and found considerable data to report.
The article does not exaggerate the consequences of the cancer itself or of either treatment.
The portion of the article on breast cancer includes an interview with one patient who was treated with apparent success, a physician employed by the cancer treatment chain that treated her, and a radiologist from a local university.
The reporter should have spoken to one or two nationally recognized experts on radiation therapy and brachytheraphy specifically in order to put the generally positive information in the story in context. The American Society of Breast Surgeons has written guidelines about the appropriate use of brachytherapy. One of its authors would have made an excellent source.
The section on prostate cancer treatement includes only one source–a urologist who performs the procedure and uses the new software he is enthusiastic about. As with the rest of the story, the article here uses comments about popularity but none about effectiveness or risk.
The article describes the most common alternative, external beam radiation.
The article does not indicate whether brachytherapy is available at any hospital that provides cancer treatment or only at specialized facilities.
The article states that brachytherapy is a less common but increasingly used treatment for some breast cancers. It does not imply the technique is new or revolutionary.
Statistics on use would have been valuable, however.
We can’t be sure if the story was based largely on a news release.