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Time magazine’s cancer headline was wrong and cruel

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A decade ago, when I was on the national desk at Newsweek, a handful of us would spend slow nights competing to see who could come closest to writing the Platonic ideal of a perfect coverline.

The game only had one real guideline: The headlines had to be vaguely rooted in reality.

That’s a journalistic precept that Time feels free to ignore. Witness the headline emblazoned in all-caps on the cover of the magazine’s April 1 issue: HOW TO CURE CANCER. It’s followed by an asterisk that directs you to a subtitle, just to make sure you get the point: Yes, it’s now possible, thanks to new cancer dream teams that are delivering better results faster.

Which, of course, is completely, utterly, inarguably false. The roughly 580,000 Americans who will die this year from cancer know the reality all too well. For some context, that’s more people than will die from chronic lower respiratory diseases, strokes, accidents, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes combined.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been major advances in treating some types of cancer, including acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children, testicular cancer in men, and early-stage breast cancer in women. On the whole, however, the ability to treat solid tumors in late-stage disease remains, in the words of Nita Maihle, the director of Yale’s Biology of Reproductive Tract Cancers Program, "abysmal."

What’s particularly egregious about Time’s cover is that it doesn’t even accurately reflect the contents of the magazine’s 4,000-word story, which highlights a five-year-old organization "started by entertainment-industry figures unhappy with the progress being made against America’s most deadly disease." The group’s main innovation, as it were, is to give out tens of millions of dollars to research groups willing to work collaboratively and produce results in three years — an "aggressively short time" in the research world.

This is not an insignificant development: The torrents of information being made available through next-generation genetic sequencing require nimble team efforts that are a rarity in medical research. (It’s also not a new idea: Nine years ago, a 9,900-word piece in Fortune titled Why We’re Losing The War On Cancer advocated this same approach.)

But I haven’t found a single cancer researcher who believes this means we’re on the verge of curing cancer. "There’s the potential for a real impact [on developing new cancer treatments] if there’s organizational momentum to pick up scientific strands, political strands, and epidemiological strands and weave them together," says Siddhartha Mukherjee, a Columbia University hematologist and oncologist and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. "But to what extent were organizational barriers keeping us from having more successful solutions against various cancers? This is not just an organizational problem."

Instead of jump-starting a conversation about the most effective approach to cancer research, Time distorted it beyond recognition. It’s certainly not the first time that’s happened. It’s been more than four decades since President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act of 1971, promising cancer sufferers that their "hopes will not be disappointed." In 1998, mortality rates for all types of cancer had actually increased slightly, from 200.73 to 200.82 deaths per 100,000 people.

That didn’t stop the New York Times from 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. Regardless, the prediction, the underpinning of Kolata’s piece, was obviously incorrect. So was former National Cancer Institute director Andrew von Eschenbach’s risible boast in 2003 that the NCI would "eliminate suffering and death" from cancer by 2015.

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, 43, a 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.

Seth Mnookin is the author of the New York Times best seller Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts and Nerve Took a Team to the Top.

—Slate

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