In The Hot Seat

Karen Leach is a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Breast Care at Guernsey's Breast Unit

IN THE past some aspects of media coverage during Breast Cancer Awareness Month have tended to highlight the negative of this condition.

The individual values of the reporter, the editor or the owner of a publication can influence news or features, and the issue of bias cannot be overlooked. This was highlighted in 'Health in the News', a recent report by The King's Fund, an independent charitable foundation.

The consistent use of images of young women fighting breast cancer gives the impression that it is common in this age group. By far the greatest risk factor for breast cancer is age. Approximately 50% of breast cancers occur in women aged 50-64. Even at age 50 the risk of developing breast cancer is 1 in 50. Women over the age of 70 years account for a further 30%. This leaves only about 20% of breast cancers detected in women less than 50 years.

'One in nine women will develop breast cancer' is a frequently quoted statistic equating to a lifetime risk. Yes, this is an accurate representation of the facts. It is less commonly stated 'eight out of nine women will not get breast cancer at all during their lifetime'. Numerical data surrounding individual women's risk of breast cancer is not always reported in ways that convey risks accurately and this causes anxiety to many women - often unnecessarily.

The King's Fund report showed that it is much more difficult to get the media interested in public health initiatives, such as breast screening or smoking cessation programmes, because they are not considered as newsworthy as a crisis in health care. Breast cancer is most common in women over 50 years, and screening mammography is the most reliable method of detecting breast cancers that are too small to feel. The long-term results of Breast Screening have shown significant survival advantages to women who are diagnosed early through the breast screening programme.

National campaigns run by organised charities and research authorities, such as Breast Cancer Care or Cancer Research UK, aim to improve health, prevent illness or reduce health inequalities. The information supplied by these organisations gives evidence of the proven risk to health of breast cancer. Yet, women previously diagnosed with breast cancer are subjected to news stories, about the latest wonder drug that can detect breast cancer, or a diet plan to stop cancer developing, which often have little scientific evidence to support their use.

As members of society with a louder voice than many, the media must accept responsibility for supplying accurate information to the public. Risk stories such as breast cancer require careful handling by the media. I recognise that the media has a responsibility and a significant role in challenging both policy-makers and public perceptions. I would like to see the media acknowledge more responsibility for the potential impact of their reporting on public health behaviour. This is a personal view on national media coverage. It is not meant to criticise or detract from the sensible reporting of health issues, but perhaps draw attention to the effect of news coverage on those diagnosed with breast cancer and the professionals caring for them.

(Reproduced courtesy 24Se7en magazine)

Article from Issue 19 dated Friday 03 October to Thursday 09 October 2003

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