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Newsweek presents a mostly balanced account of family’s unconventional cancer journey

Rating

4 Star

Categories

CANCER AND KIDS: IS MEDICAL MARIJUANA THE ANSWER?

Our Review Summary

We commend this story for making it clear that there is scanty evidence to support cannabis oil as a primary cancer treatment. Nevertheless, many readers will get the impression that the oil was responsible for the patient’s cancer remission and improvement in quality of life. The story could have more clearly pointed out that this child’s improved health might have simply been a consequence of receiving the standard treatment when he was first diagnosed.

We also take issue with the headline. It’s misleading and irresponsible to propose to parents of children with harrowing illnesses that medical marijuana is “the answer” to cancer. As the story explains, we’re nowhere near knowing if this is the case–or not.

 

Why This Matters

The emotional power of a personal anecdote is essential to good storytelling. But that emotional power must then be put into context with the evidence, so that readers can see the distinction between personal beliefs and objective facts. When stories focus on the personal details, with sparse references to clinical evidence, readers are likely to lose sight of the difference between hope and proof. This story leaned in the direction of anecdote-over-evidence, but only slightly. Had it discussed the harms and costs of cannabis oil–as well as the risks of stopping conventional therapy–it would have been more balanced.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There is no discussion of the cost of the cannabis treatment.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The story gives the impression that the mother made the right choice for her son: stopping conventional chemotherapy and other treatment, and instead giving him cannabis oil. But more than once, the story warns that there is no evidence that cannabis oil fights cancer in people. It reports the mother’s beliefs that the cannabis oil benefited her son, but it does not tell readers that her beliefs are supported by any independent scientific evidence; in other words, there are no specific claims that the cannabis oil provided proven benefits. So we will give the story a passing grade on this criterion.

However, the story could have more clearly noted that the improvements in the boy’s quality of life could be explained by the end of toxic chemotherapy and other treatments, and that it’s just a coincidence that the cannabis oil treatment started at the same time.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story does not address potential harms of long term treatment with cannabis oil. Also, it does not clearly explain that early discontinuation of conventional treatment might increase the risk of relapse.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

We will give the story a satisfactory rating because it clearly states that “the information on its safety and efficacy was (and still is) limited to anecdotal accounts, a handful of case reports and lab studies published in obscure medical journals.”

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

There are quotes from multiple experts. Those who are proponents of cannabis oil treatment are identified as working for marijuana businesses.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The problem here is that the story should have been more clear that one interpretation of the series of events is that the conventional treatment succeeded in putting the cancer into remission… and that the improvement in the patient’s quality of life might be entirely due to the discontinuation of that treatment.

By repeatedly stating that the patient began to feel better after starting cannabis oil treatment, the story implies the oil caused the improvement and might be superior to the conventional treatment, rather than noting that the oil might not have anything to do with the patient feeling better, and that even in this single case, there cannot be any firm conclusions about the relative value of the treatment options.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The story talks about the availability of marijuana in various states.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The story is clear that people have been using marijuana, including cannabis oil, to treat symptoms and side effects of cancer treatment for some time now. It notes that hypotheses about a direct effect on cancer are relatively new… and remain to be tested in people.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

The story includes multiple sources and appears to be original reporting.

Total Score: 6 of 9 Satisfactory

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