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A Case in Contrasts: How Should the Media Talk About Cancer Diagnoses?

Only a week ago, transatlantic media coverage of the British monarchy quickly pivoted from discussions about photo editing to discussions about adjuvant chemotherapy when Catherine, Princess of Wales revealed that she had been diagnosed with cancer (Kwai, 2024). Since then, many media outlets have raced to interview oncologists about her case and expected recovery. One prominent US oncologist noted on social media, for example, that she had received 4 separate media requests within hours of the Kensington Palace video being released (Prowell, 2024). She had declined them all, correctly noting that engaging in speculation without any details of the Princess' diagnosis or stage would be premature. 

This is of course the correct call. We should respect each patient's privacy as well as their right to disclose as much or as little about their diagnoses as they would like. Here, some of the media coverage around the Princess of Wales' diagnosis—for example, the broad statement that "younger people may be given higher doses of the drugs"—is potentially inaccurate and likely to be unhelpful (Sample, 2024). 

However, this media frenzy has reminded me of another recent situation within the past year where a public persona was diagnosed with cancer. Representative Steve Scalise, who currently serves as the House Majority Leader in the US House of Representatives, issued a press release in August 2023 stating that he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma (Scalise, 2023). Multiple myeloma is the second-most common blood cancer in the US and the most common blood cancer in Black Americans, with a US incidence of over 35,000 cases per year (NCI, 2024). Some of you may recognize his name given what else was happening in the House of Representatives in August 2023: namely, intense negotiations around who would serve as the new Speaker of the House (with Rep. Scalise as a leading contender at the time).

Many journalists and political commentators thus openly commented on Rep. Scalise's diagnosis and even his prognosis. Former US president Donald Trump, for example, suggested at the time that Rep. Scalise "is in serious trouble from the standpoint of his cancer" (Broadwater & Edmondson, 2023). This quote ran in a leading US newspaper without any context. Last month, Rep. Scalise issued a press statement after undergoing autologous stem cell transplantation for multiple myeloma, noting that he was now in remission and was excited about returning to work (Scalise, 2023). Media coverage around his return largely did not mention multiple myeloma by name, instead alluding to his recovery from a "rare form of blood cancer" (an inaccurate statement) (Karni, 2024). With one exception that I can find (Wang & McGinley, 2023), most national media outlets did not interview oncologists about multiple myeloma or autologous stem cell transplantation despite substantial coverage in the past year around voting margins in the House on any given day.

Are there any lessons we can take away from these diametrically opposed approaches to how the media covered a cancer diagnosis? Yes: when in doubt, stick to the patient's story. Catherine, Princess of Wales has made it clear that she is interested in privacy around her treatment, and the media should respect that decision. Rep. Scalise has been quite transparent about his journey with multiple myeloma, and the media should take the opportunity to raise public awareness about multiple myeloma and stem cell transplantation—particularly when other politicians are quoted insinuating that he is "in serious trouble." Public personae face the same challenges as any patient with cancer would: information overload, symptomatic toxicities, and uncertainties about the future. As such, whenever they courageously choose to disclose their journeys publicly, I encourage more facts and less speculation in how their cases are covered. 

References

Kwai I (2024, March 23). What we know about Catherine, Princess of Wales's cancer diagnosis. New York Times. 2024 March 23. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2024/03/23/world/europe/what-we-know-kate-catherine-princess-wales-cancer.html

Prowell T (2024 Mar 22). Twitter. Accessed at: https://twitter.com/tmprowell/status/1771262300218962061

Sample I (2024, March 24). What is preventive chemotherapy and how effective is it? The Princess of Wales' treatment explained. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2024/mar/24/what-is-preventive-chemotherapy-catherine-princess-of-wales-cancer

Scalise S (2023, August 23). Update from Majority Leader Steve Scalise. Available at: https://scalise.house.gov/press-releases/Update-from-Majority-Leader-Steve-Scalise

National Cancer Institute (2024). Cancer Stat Facts: myeloma. Available at: https://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/mulmy.html

Broadwater L & Edmondson C (2023, October 13). Scalise withdraws as Speaker Candidate, leaving G.O.P. in chaos". Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/12/us/politics/scalise-jordan-house-speaker.html

Scalise S (2024). Scalise to return to Washington next week. Available at: https://scalise.house.gov/press-releases/Scalise-to-Return-to-Washington-Next-Week

Karni A (2024, February 13) Steve Scalise returns to Capitol after cancer treatment, noting 'votes are tight'. New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/13/us/politics/steve-scalise-illness-cancer-vote.html

Wang AB & McGinley L (2023, August 30). House Majority Leader Steve Scalise diagnosed with blood cancer. Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2023/08/29/steve-scalise-blood-cancer/

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