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Wednesday, June 23, 1999 Published at 07:56 GMT 08:56 UK


Media raise cancer fears

Charities fear patients may be unnecessarily alarmed

Better information is as important as better treatments when it comes to improving cancer services, campaigners have said.

BBC Health Correspondent Richard Hannaford meets a cancer patient who refuses to be a victim
A survey published on Wednesday shows many patients feel they do not get enough information about cancer services.

Another suggests that colourful and ill-informed use of language in the media - referring to politicians such as Peter Mandelson and Bill Clinton as cancers, for example - only serves to confuse patients.

And recent figures show that the UK slips behind other European countries and the US in providing top quality cancer care.

[ image:  ]
Two campaigns called for improvements on Wednesday, as the Commons All-Party Group on Cancer held its Britain Against Cancer conference and Macmillan Cancer Relief launched its Voice for Life initiative.

Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to improve services when he met leading cancer specialists at Downing Street last month.

But those involved in Wednesday's activities say a great deal of concern remains over the future of cancer services.

Nicholas Young describes the surveys' findings
Macmillan commissioned two surveys that revealed patients wanted more information about cancer services and were needlessly alarmed about cancer by reports they saw in the media.

One of the surveys looked at the coverage given to cancer in 18 national newspapers over six months from October 1998.

Alarming images

It counted 5,000 articles - or 200 a week - in total, many of them about celebrities and their experiences with cancer.

[ image: Tamoxifen is a well established treatment . . .]
Tamoxifen is a well established treatment . . .
Thirty-seven preventive measures were covered including chocolate, arsenic and mud.

Twelve cures were mentioned ranging from the proven drug Tamoxifen to experimental treatments such as scorpion poison, shark cartilage and mistletoe.

It also found that war imagery - battle, fight, victim and weapon - was frequently used in cancer stories.

Nicholas Young, Macmillan's chief executive, said: "The language we use to discuss and describe cancer is inaccurate, confusing and frightening.

[ image: . . . shark extracts are not]
. . . shark extracts are not
"It simplifies what is complex, generalises what is individual, and reinforces the stigmas and stereotypes that can hurt people living with cancer."

Stacey Adams, head of communications for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, said the ICRF had banned war imagery in its communications, along with the word "breakthrough" to prevent media coverage exaggerating the real significance of research.

"The effect on patients and people with cancer when faced with huge headlines proclaiming new cures for cancer is always false hope and then very real disappointment," she said.

"For those facing what is already a very difficult time in their lives we don't think that is acceptable or responsible."

Patient experiences

Macmillan's other survey focussed on patients' experiences of cancer care.

It found that while 60% of cancer patients had a discussion about their diagnosis, only 40% felt fully involved in decisions about their treatment.

[ image: Professor Gordon McVie said doctors were doing their best to improve communications skills]
Professor Gordon McVie said doctors were doing their best to improve communications skills
The time doctors spent explaining a patient's diagnosis ranged from less than five minutes to - in one case - over five hours.

Less than a third were given any written information, while only 21% were put in touch with a relevant support body.

Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the Cancer Research Campaign, said specialists had been working to improve their communications skills.

"It's all very well having psychological counselling and support groups but the person the patients wants to spend most time with is the doctor," he said.

"We have to make sure that the doctor uses that time to best effect."

A number of scientific studies were underway to establish which training methods produced the best communicators, he said.

Government promises

Mr Young said: "The government recently pledged to make cancer services more patient centred.

"What this survey shows is that although there have been improvements, we still have a long way to go before we make this a reality for everyone."

The Britain Against Cancer conference will try to make sure the government delivers on its promises.

Dr Ian Gibson MP, chairman of the Commons All-Party Group on Cancer, said: "In the aftermath of the Downing Street cancer summit this conference will harden up the areas of cancer treatment, research and care that should be improved in the next few years.

"No longer is it satisfactory for Britain to be ranked low in any league table where cancer is concerned."

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