Pulling on heart strings raises false hope for cancer patients

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167641073Cancer treatment and cures are the elusive goals of millions of people, including patients, familial caregivers, medical providers, and researchers. Although certain cancers are indeed curable, many of the most deadly forms (e.g., pancreatic, lung, brain) are usually not. Yet, many vulnerable patients and family members are misled to believe that cancer is more easily managed than it really is because of advertising promoted by cancer centers. A study published in Annals of Internal Medicine indicates that cancer centers offer false hope by marketing information that is unsupported by scientific literature.

In the study, researchers reviewed the content of 409 television and magazine advertisements for 102 cancer centers, evaluating their informational and emotional components. Each ad was assessed based on four criteria: clinical services promoted, information provided about those services, use of emotional appeals, and the use of patient testimonials and disclaimers. The researchers found that 88 percent of cancer centers endorse treatment overscreening (18 percent), or support services (13 percent). In addition, 85 percent of the advertisements used techniques to appeal to emotions, which created a distorted message for audiences. Often, basing ads on emotion seemed to equate treatment with cure. Also, of the patient testimonials presented in about half of the cancer ads studied, 79 percent focused on survival or a cure. Authors of the study conclude cancer center ads that evoke emotions of fear and hope may lead patients to pursue care that is either unnecessary or unsupported by scientific evidence.

Therefore, consumers must be aware of misinformation widely represented in cancer center advertisements. For example, proton therapy for prostate cancer is one of many examples of treatment options patients seek despite the fact that limited scientific evidence suggests any major advantage. One ad for proton therapy by ProCure treatment centers celebrated reduced risk of side effects and highlighted only the benefits of the treatment. The reality is proton therapy is no more beneficial than standard radiation in controlling prostate cancer. Yet, according to the American Cancer Society, The lack of evidence has not slowed the rapid increase in the use of proton treatment for prostate cancer. One recent study documented a 67% increase in the number of cases of proton treatment for prostate cancer billed to Medicare between 2006 and 2009.

ACSH s Dr. Ross had this to say: This study once again illustrates the idea that patients must discuss all treatment options with their doctors. Furthermore, doctors should be made aware of the results of this study and should make sure to be clear with their patients about implications of specific treatments. Making decisions based on emotions may not result in the best course of action for a patient. Further, cancer centers whose marketing practices stray outside the bounds of clinical evidence, for the purpose of doing an excision of dollars rather than tumors from vulnerable patients, should come under the scrutiny of medical boards and even the FDA or FTC when extreme.