The breast cancer draft screening recommendations released by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in May have generated controversy and confusion, making it crucial for health journalists to provide balanced information without inadvertently creating false hope or unnecessary fear.
Cancer screening has always involved risks alongside benefits — unnecessary procedures generated from false positives remain a potential harm. But greater public awareness about screening guidelines and cancer symptoms, paired with greater willingness to talk more openly about cancer than in the past, have meant more disease is caught today at earlier stages than it once was. This makes it more treatable and increases odds of survival.
Those developments also mean more people are living longer with disease. At the same time, today’s longer life expectancies and the rising risk of cancer with age — the median age of diagnosis for all cancers combined is 66 — mean more older people are living with the disease too. With the rising numbers of people living with and after cancer, it’s more important than ever for journalists to provide accurate and balanced evidence-based information about cancer screening, detection and treatment options.
AHCJ’s webinar this week (Wednesday, July 19), Cancer news: Balancing fear, hype and reality, will provide valuable insights into responsibly reporting on the latest cancer-related recommendations and addressing the emotionally charged topic of cancer using the latest scientific evidence. Experts will explore the controversy surrounding the new federal guidelines, how communicating about cancer has evolved over the past century, and the implications of these shifts for patients, health providers and the public.
How can journalists responsibly communicate the latest scientific evidence and help their audiences understand the nuances and limitations of screening, treatment and disease progression? How do reporters provide a clearer picture to promote more informed decision-making and reduce confusion about screening options and modalities — and the growing range of treatment options — without unrealistically raising expectations?
Cancer surgeon Mehra Golshan, M.D., deputy chief medical officer for surgical services and clinical director of the Center for Breast Cancer at Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center, wrote about the updated breast cancer guidelines in a New York Times op-ed. He’ll talk about the challenges and considerations of balancing risks, benefits and harms of cancer screenings with an ever-changing but never complete body of evidence about over-treatment versus lives saved from earlier screening. Not only is Golshan a breast cancer surgeon, but he himself recently survived colorectal cancer diagnosed at age 48. His treatment began around the time the American Cancer Society advised that colorectal screening should start at age 45 instead of age 50.
Medical journalist Elaine Schattner, M.D., clinical associate professor at Weill Cornell Medicine’s division of hematology and medical oncology as well as a breast cancer survivor and author of “From Whispers to Shouts, the Ways we Talk About Cancer”, will also join the webinar. She’ll talk about the challenges of diagnosis later in life, age as a risk factor for cancer, and how the media have communicated complex and emotionally charged information about cancer throughout the last century. The panelists will also discuss strategies for reporting sensitively on cancer issues more broadly, while maintaining empathy and avoiding sensationalism.
The expertise of both guests lay in breast cancer, one of the cancers for which recommendations have frequently changed over the years and have been subject to greater scrutiny and controversy than most other cancers. But the takeaways from the discussion and from shifts toward how breast cancer screening should be handled can apply to a wide range of other cancers, particularly screenings for colorectal, prostate and cervical cancer.
The challenges of determining how and when various groups should be screened for cancers — and how both medical professionals and journalists communicate those challenges and the recommendations themselves —is only going to get more complex as developments in oncology detection continue their rapid advance. Thanks to the explosion in technology around liquid biopsies and their potential for early cancer detection, several multi-cancer early detection tests are likely to be on the market soon.
The evidence base about the risks and benefits of these new tests remains thin but will begin to grow exponentially, which means medical organizations, regulatory bodies, insurance companies and institutions like the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force will have to decide when and how these tests should be used. The lessons learned from the past combined with insights from Schattner and Golshan on communicating about cancer can provide a solid foundation for journalists to understand best practices for approaching coverage of these tests and other screenings.
The following resources may be helpful for those who plan to join us for this webinar:
- I’m a Breast Cancer Surgeon. Here’s What I Think of the New Screening Guidelines.
- From Whispers to Shouts book review
- USPSTF Draft Recommendation Statement, Breast Cancer: Screening
- Breast Cancer Screening Stat Pearls
- Improving communication about cancer screening: moving towards informed decision making
- Liquid biopsies: the future of cancer early detection
- Liquid Biopsies for Cancer: What to Know and What to Expect