This is a broadcast piece highlighting an association between circulating levels of vitamin D and breast cancer course. It places the results of the most recently presented study, not in the context of other research which supports or refutes the observations made but in a maelstrom of disease association and health claims being made about vitamin D deficiency. There was no discussion about the utility of measuring circulating levels of vitamin D prior to making lifestyle changes to affect one’s vitamin D level. There was no discussion about the difference between an observed association between two things (in this case circulating vitamin D and breast cancer morbidity) and a demonstration that one causes the other. Viewers were not provided with information that better enable them to learn more about vitamin D and make informed choices about what action, if any, they should take.
It is unfortunate that the alloted time was not better spent to provide information that would allow viewers to understand the issues rather than simply supply reason to worry.
There was no discussion of costs associated with the various sources of vitamin D, i.e. how much do vitamin D supplements costs? In addition, as there was discussion about obtaining vitamin D from food – how do foods which are richer or poorer sources of vitamin D compare in price? (i.e. farm vs. wild salmon)
Insufficient information was provided to evaluate the health claims about vitamin D. As there was no accompanying background about the proportion of women who will have metastases or die from breast cancer, it is not possible to grasp what a doubling of the risk of metastases or 75% increase in death actually mean.
There was, unfortunately, no mention about harms associated with vitamin D overdose. As it can be fatal, at the very least, a comment about too much of a good thing not being good should have been included.
The story talked about "the latest study" but provided no information about the type of study. It did not discuss the background and supporting evidence about vitamin D and breast cancer aggressiveness. Lastly – it failed to discuss what utility, if any, the information presented might have for individuals with breast cancer
Running through a laundry list of diseases and having the broadcast lead with the statistic that half of all Americans don’t have enough vitamin D in their blood both seem like disease mongering approaches to information presentation. Even the most at-risk populations don’t reach the level of more than half being vitamin D deficient.
Although the story included sounds bites from individuals who have long careers exploring the biology of vitamin D and its impact on human health, they were alloted so little time, that the insight they might have shared with viewers was minimal. That said, in addition to interviewing the author of the highlighted study, the story did obtain comments from Dr. Hollick, an expert in vitamin D who had no connection with the study. It is interesting to note that his quote is actually not ‘news’.
The end of the story mentioned diet or supplements and sun exposure as means of obtaining vitamin D. However as the lead for the story was discussion about a role for vitamin D to affect breast cancer aggressiveness, the story did not adequately address what viewers need to know about treatment options for altering breast cancer metastases or risk of death from breast cancer. Viewers could walk away from this broadcast thinking that consumption of vitamin D supplements will reduce these risks when the scientist involved in the study herself is quoted in the meeting press release as saying that "We can’t say at this time if very low vitamin D levels cause more aggressive cancer or if another factor is causing this association."
The story mentioned sunlight exposure, diet, and supplement consumption as potential sources of vitamin D. However – as this was a story about vitamin D deficiency, it would seem logical to have some discussion about the amounts of vitamin D that people ought to be aiming for in order to potentially avoid the disease listed. The story should have mentioned those foods commonly fortified with vitamin D that are common place.
An additional source of vitamin D that was not mentioned were osteoporosis medications that are now available coupled with vitamin D.
The opening statement of the story about "Important health news tonight" suggested that the implications of adequate circulating levels of vitamin D for health are new and that its association with breast cancer biology is novel. While the highlighted story might have a unique kernel to add to the complex biology of vitamin D, this piece did not do justice to the existing body of knowledge.
Although the impetus to do this story at this time may have been stimulated by a press release from the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the story itself does not appear to make use of some of the key piece of information contained within the press release.