Monthly Archives: April 2015

I will survive… Are you positive about that?

Peter McIntyre

Peter McIntyre

Is a positive attitude about survival useful or appropriate when someone is diagnosed with cancer? Is optimism always an asset as an approach to life, or indeed death?

We all love positive energy and celebrate someone who triumphs against the odds, but for many that is not possible. Cancer can be relentless and pitiless; half of those diagnosed with this disease die from it, irrespective of their determination to fight.

A daunting number of friends and relatives have recently died from cancer; more or less within a year of diagnosis. Their own and family reactions will be familiar to you who work in the field. They staggered under the news. Then hopes rose as they learnt about possible treatments. During a period of maximum engagement, they did their best as patient or supporter to reach the distant shore of survival.

In my unscientific sample however, the undertow proved too strong.

As treatments failed, the patient became exhausted; options narrowed, hope became fragmented. The narrative switched to unlikely new treatments, and eventually a need for some breathing space and a bit more time. The final stages were rapid.

Where do you find resilience?

I am wondering what those of you who apply your skills and knowledge to saving life tell yourselves about those you cannot save. Where do you find resilience you need for the next patient?

It is evident that a positive approach to cancer is not always about winning a battle. Sometimes a cure is simply out of reach. In such cases, treatment and care to achieve the best possible quality of life, delivered with compassion, cannot be ‘failure’.

Certainly, the people I know found real positives in loving human interaction after curative treatment ended.

A cousin who put a premium on his independence experienced a remarkable strengthening of his marriage and family life in his final year.

A relative who died leaving a son under the age of two spent her final days surrounded by love. She and her husband made plans for their son after her death; her father read to her; her brother crossed the world to be with her.

A man in the final days of life asked for a latte and Danish pastry to be brought to his bedside. He and his sister responded with almost ridiculous pleasure to this familiar treat he could neither eat nor drink.

As a journalist, I am aware of my own ignorance. But even the most skilled and knowledgeable lack the power of life and death or the gift of prophecy. Neither cutting edge treatment nor a positive approach guarantees survival.

At a certain stage, a determination by the patient to make the most of remaining life and by professionals and family to deliver treatment and care with compassion offers a route to the happiest possible ending. Better to help the patient to be ready for anything, than to stake all on what may prove to be a false positive.

Good journalism sparks change: nominate a cancer reporter today

Simon Crompton

Simon Crompton

A couple of weeks ago, I was answering questions about health journalism at a patient involvement seminar run by the charity Bowel and Cancer Research in London. The participants did not have a high opinion of journalists – at least it seemed that way. Wasn’t it true that they made up stories? Why did they say one thing one week, and contradicted it the next?

I had some sympathy. I remember, a few years back, that a national newspaper ran stories saying that meat both caused bowel cancer and wasn’t linked with bowel cancer on consecutive days.

But as the seminar went on, I found myself becoming increasingly passionate about the need for good journalism. Without reporters shouting about things, I argued, politicians, policy makers and even scientific institutions get stuck in old science, old assumptions, old complacencies. The participants, in turn, began to reveal their own appreciation of the way journalists had raised the profile of important cancer issues.

No true journalist makes up a story

This year I’ll be on the judging panel for the European School of Oncology’s Best Cancer Reporter Award for the sixth time running and, with the deadline for entries just a couple of weeks away, I’ve been thinking more about what a good cancer journalist actually is. No true journalist (I reassured the patient representatives at the seminar) actually makes up a story. But journalism isn’t simply about telling the truth.

The good journalists – the ones who get on the shortlist for the ESO BCRA Award – are the kind who will find out something that others can’t be bothered to look for. They’re the ones who’d rather not be told what to write, and will go to their editor with something different – beyond the run-of-the-mill game of copy-cat that national publications and broadcasters play. They’ll argue and fight to get that story published, even if the editor thinks it sounds a bit too serious (as happens very often).

And, if they’re writing about cancer, they’ll do it because they believe it’s important – because people’s lives and the quality of lives are at stake.

Making a difference

There are a lot of those kinds of journalists around and we see a good representation of them every year on the BCRA shortlist. They’ve produced demographic investigations into why poorer people die of cancer more frequently than affluent people; level-headed analyses of breast cancer overtreatment; a portrait of the neglect surrounding the growing cancer crisis in developing countries; and much much more – all in the mainstream media reaching thousands of people.

You can find past winners and their stories here.

I can guarantee that every one of the past BCRA winners and shortlisted entries has made a difference: whether it be to one individual reader, or to thousands of people with cancer by helping spark a change. Journalists aren’t saints, but the cancer community does desperately need them. Which is why, if you work in cancer, I’d encourage you to publicise the Best Cancer Reporter Award to any media contacts you have; and if you’re a journalist producing material about cancer, please enter. We need to show the world how good you can be.

You can find details of how to enter the BCRA 2015 here.

Best Cancer Reporter Award winners (2012-2014). Please click on the photos to view their stories.

Steve Buist, Hamilton Spectator, Canada

Steve Buist, Hamilton Spectator, Canada (2014 Best Cancer Reporter Award winner)

Tiffany O'Callaghan, New Scientist magazine, UK (2013 Best Cancer Reporter Award joint winner)

Tiffany O’Callaghan, New Scientist magazine, UK (2013 Best Cancer Reporter Award joint winner)

Joanne Silberner, freelance multimedia reporter, USA (2013 Best Cancer Reporter Award joint winner)

Joanne Silberner, freelance multimedia reporter, USA (2013 Best Cancer Reporter Award joint winner)

Bernhard Albrecht, Der Spiegel, Germany (2012 Best Cancer Reporter Award winner)

Bernhard Albrecht, Der Spiegel, Germany (2012 Best Cancer Reporter Award winner)