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Callous misrepresentations
A little self-study about cancer by media professionals will go a long way in giving the public the true picture when celebrities as well as mere mortals contract cancer. MANJULA LAL feels that claims and conclusions are better left to experts for journalists are only generalists.
Posted/Updated Wednesday, Feb 15 12:41:04, 2012

“Yuvraj has no lung cancer” went a front page headline (The Hindu, February 7, Delhi edition). This awkward sentence revealed little about cricketer Yuvraj Singh’s medical condition, and perhaps a bit too much about the news fraternity’s inability to understand the nuances of the disease. This was a report of a press conference called by Max Cancer Centre’s senior oncologist Nitesh Rohatgi following a request from the cricketer’s family. Clearly, the media’s constant harping on the subject without representing the actual position had rattled his family. But the reporter still had no clarity, nor did he/she appear to have done any googling on the subject. For the key part of the opening sentence, long-winded and over-explanatory, reads “…has a condition called mediastinal seminoma located between his two lungs rather than in his lungs…this is not lung cancer nor has the cancer spread to his lungs”.

The Hindustan Times, reporting the same press conference, got the headline right: “Yuvi has cancer, but not in the lungs”.

The truth is, Yuvraj has a malignant tumour and it may be between the lungs but it still has to be called cancer – no euphemisms are needed. In fact, the practice of saying a patient has “breast cancer” or “gastrointestinal cancer” is merely a shorthand way to tell you where the cancerous cells are currently located. Malignancy might have been detected in one part of the body but if you take a holistic approach, it is the person who has cancer not the body part, and while attacking it through surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy, a general alarm has been sounded that cannot be shut off in the patient’s lifetime.

These are the cold, hard facts about any kind of cancer and that is why the media should kindly refrain from saying somebody is “completely cured”. It’s not like a fracture that, after it heals, frees the patient from the need to ever visit the orthopaedics department again.

That is why the ill-conceived effort of trying to assure readers/viewers that cancer is “curable” is misconceived. Journalists’ bedside manners do not have to be better than doctors’. Cancer is not curable but treatable, i.e., in the absence of a solution to the mystery of why cells suddenly turn rogue, doctors have found ways of hammering at it for a short period (maximum eight months) and then leaving it to God. Of course, they do recommend diet restrictions because of statistical studies showing that some food elements may be precipitating factors. They do recommend frequent check-ups and possibly some hormone therapy. But there is no cure because nobody has yet understood why cells multiply madly, nor is there any medicine/vaccine you can take to tame the cells.

That is why it was not accurate to report that movie critic Nikhat Kazmi, who died of a recurrence of breast cancer at the age of 52, had “apparently” been cured in 2008. No doctor would have dared given her a clean chit of health. It is just that when anxious friends ask a patient, “So, everything clear?” she generally answers, “Yes, yes” hastily, knowing only too well how long it would take to expiate on the subject. For, doctors never give all-clears, they only give stern admonitions to their patients to remember that there is no cure, that they are patients for life, and that there is only a “survival rate” (the number of years a patient survives).

The public may be in denial about such grim facts (just as it may be about realpolitik, or match-fixing) but that’s the public’s problem. After all, when it comes to violent crimes or sexual deviations, we the media give them the full monty. 

Into this maelstrom of confusion comes New York-based oncologist Siddharth Mukherjee with a book, The Emperor of All Maladies, a title that, inadvertently or deliberately, crowns cancer the biggest, the most scary disease, and helped in making the book a bestseller and prize-winner. Once it was top of the charts, it became inevitable that none other than Barkha Dutt would interview Mukherjee. Fear writ large on her queries, and making no effort to conceal the absence of research, she began the interview at Tehelka’s Goa Think Fest with a preamble that revealed her own fears. Sample phrases: “the immense vulnerability we feel about mortality and disease, which in the end is a great leveler...Steve Jobs…he’s obsessive about his fitness, about his health, and then in his fifties this iconic genius man goes just like that, redefining for many of us… how we look at life and how we look at death. Great leveler, that story of Steve Jobs. It doesn’t matter if you’re a genius. It doesn’t matter how successful you are. It doesn’t even matter how much care you take to look after your health. We just don’t understand cancer, do we?”

No, we don’t. But our profession demands that we examine the facts coolly and try to present complicated scientific facts correctly. Let’s not flash, like Times Now did, a slug, “Yuvi battles cancer”, all day long, as if it were a one-day match and your channel would, by the time News Hour came around, be able to debate whether he should continue to play or not. Leave that to the specialists, we’re just generalists.

Tailpiece: In the interview with Barkha Dutt, Siddharth Mukherjee related an incident dating back to 1950, when Fanny Rose calls up The New York Times and says she's a breast cancer survivor. She says, “I'd like to place an advertisement for a survivors’ group of women with breast cancer”. There is a long pause. Finally, the society editor of the New York Times comes on, not the health editor. The society editor says: “You know, Ms. Rose, we can't use the words breast and cancer in The New York Times. What if we said that this was a survivors’ group of women with diseases of the chest wall?”

Mukherjee calls this “death by euphemism”. 

(The writer is a Senior Editor with Tehelka weekly newsmagazine)
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