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Time’s “How to Cure Cancer” Cover – Worst of the Year?


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That’s what journalist Seth Mnookin writes on Slate, stating, further, that it is “wrong, grandiose, and cruel.”

He writes, “I haven’t found a single cancer researcher who believes this means we’re on the verge of curing cancer.”

And he reflects on some journalistic history in the same vein – from 1998:

“…the New York Times…running Gina Kolata’s embarrassing front-page “special report,” which quoted James Watson as saying a researcher at Children’s Hospital in Boston would “cure cancer in two years.” Watson claimed he said no such thing—“When I read her article, I was horrified,” he told a reporter at the time."

Just 6 months ago, I wrote about how CNN provided another, more recent example.

Mnookin concludes:

The result of this succession of grandiose promises is similar to that of the boy who cried wolf: Eventually, it becomes hard to take even realistic claims seriously. “Historically,” says Mukherjee, “someone then comes and says, ‘Didn’t you promise this then and aren’t we now being duped?’ It creates a cycle of problems down the road."

Which brings us to the real problem with Time’s headline, which is not that it’s wrong, or even that it might create funding problems for future cancer researchers—it’s that in the context of a fatal disease with excruciatingly painful treatment options, it’s simply cruel.

“It made me bristle,” says Lisa Bonchek Adams, a 43-year-old mother of three with Stage IV breast cancer.* “It means getting messages and calls from people pointing to that and saying, ‘See, you need to have hope—there’s going to be a cure.’ ”

Adams knows that’s not true, “at least not for me. Talking about a sudden cure—it’s magical thinking. My hope is not for a cure, it’s for treatment that can help people with side effects and ultimately treatment that may make this a manageable disease.” Of course, that doesn’t make for a snappy coverline—although it does have the virtue of being true.

Looks like the enthusiasm over a possible journalistic (and health topic) renaissance after Steven Brill’s excellent “Bitter Pill” cover story at Time was short-lived. Bitter pill, indeed.

Cure was one of the “7 Words You Shouldn’t Use in Medical News” in an article I wrote 13 years ago. I didn’t create that list in isolation; each of the 7 words was suggested to me by sick people I’d interviewed as words to avoid in health care news stories. People like Lisa Bonchek Adams, quoted by Mnookin.

This post originally appeared on Health News Review on March 29, 2013. Also check out the follow-up post: TIME, TIME Warner ethical questions raised in cancer coverage.


More Blog Posts by Gary Schwitzer

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Gary Schwitzer has spent more than 30 years in journalism on radio, television, interactive multimedia and the Internet. He is the publisher of, a website aimed at improving the accuracy, balance and completeness of health news reporting and helping consumers evaluate the evidence for and against new ideas in health care. Want to know more? Follow him on Twitter at @garyschwitzer.

Tags for this article:
Cancer   Make Good Treatment Decisions   Women's Health  

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