Why We STILL Can’t Talk About Cancer

Why We STILL Can’t Talk About Cancer

This is an updated version of a post about cancer communications I wrote in early 2016.  It is truer now than ever.

Cancer communications – it’s hard

I have done lots of types of challenging communications work in my professional life: selling brands and ideas for 12 years in the agency world, doing communications for the Securities and Exchange Commission during and after the financial crisis of 2008, for a Chinese conglomerate that went on to become the largest IPO in history, and now, a few years, work in cancer communications.

Cancer is, by far, the most challenging professional communications scenario I have ever faced. Here’s why:

You can’t be understood if people can’t hear you

When the doctor tells you you have cancer.I learned this valuable yet simple lesson back in 2004 while in the chemo ward at Georgetown Lombardi Hospital with my mother, who was receiving treatment. One day while sitting around and waiting, I was engaged in conversation with a woman who was in one of the chemo chairs next to my mother and she told me one sentence that has stuck with me throughout my time doing cancer communications:

“Once the doctor says the words ‘You have cancer,’ you don’t hear anything else.”

I could go on about the need for a good a note-taking caregiver, but there are other resources for that. The point that I want to make is the difficulty of communicating about cancer. It’s complex, nuanced, can be confusing and misleading, yet there is more hope today than ever before. It’s hard, but not impossible.

Are we at war with cancer?

I’m not sure that the imagery and well-intentioned metaphors surrounding the fight against cancer convey a meaning that presents whereFormer President Nixon signs National Cancer Act in 1971. we are in at present.  For example, in 1971, then President Nixon  signed a bill marking the “War on Cancer.” Last year, Vice President Biden nobly created a task force that is called the “Cancer Moonshot.” These were and are well intentioned and much-needed metaphors, but as a communicator, I’m not sure that the words match the content. In a “war,” you have an enemy whom you are trying to kill. Is the enemy cancer cells? Who is the army? The government? Pharma? Academia? All three?

The true enemies (aside from the diseases) have also mutated into barriers to sharing cancer research information,  sadly low clinical trial accrual rates, cancer health disparities (where you live and/or how much money or education you have impacting your outcome) and the way that cancer research grants get funded.   Again, it’s complex.

Most people don’t consume “complex” information

The hard part about hearing things like “a billion dollars” and the word “cure” is that cancer is not that simple. It is highly complicated. We have come to understand that cancer is a genetic disease. There are many types of cancer and although we make daily progress, it is a series of insidious illnesses. You can knock back one type of cancer, but then the genes can mutate, become resistant to treatment, and you have to start all over again. And again.

People, especially those who are watching loved ones suffer through cancer, understandably want a FIX NOW, a simple slogan, a simple answer, a magic bullet. Most people even give me a quizzical look when I tell them that cancer is not just one disease. I believe that the media (both traditional and social) have taught us to learn in sound bites and something as complex and hard to understand as cancer research, diagnosis and treatment(s) just doesn’t add up.  “No blood for oil” is more easily remembered than a complicated argument as to why we evicted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991.

Bumper sticker statements can much more memorable than nuanced, complex answers, even if the issue is highly complex. This is a tremendous challenge for those of us who communicate about cancer-related issues.

Take a look at the Food and Drug Administration’s explanation of how a drug goes from basic science, discovery, and development to implementation and post-market safety monitoring.   MedicineNet says:

In the United States, it takes an average of 12 years for an experimental drug to travel from the laboratory to your medicine cabinet. That is, if it makes it [emphasis mine].

Combine this statistic with the complexity of cancer and the fact that only five in 5,000 drugs that enter preclinical testing progress to human testing (and that’s not even approval). That’s nuanced, complex and for many people, very hard to understand for a highly emotional issue. The laboratory portion alone can take 10 years or more. Yet this is part of the “war.” And you certainly can’t fit that on a bumper sticker.

Why communicating about cancer is so hard

Combine fear, emotion, hype, desperation, nuance, highly complex, scientific language, and differences in each and every single patients’ type of cancer, and you’ll find that it is very, very difficult to communicate the journey “to a cure” that so many people long for.

Like millions of people all over the world, I want resources, simple answers and a to declare “victory” on a horrible disease kills far too many people. My own mother died in Aprnon-small-cell small-cell lung cancer. She was there as I took my first breath, and I was there as she took her last. But as a now cancer communicator, I know that the reality is just not that simple. Bumper sticker slogans are effective, but they don’t match the reality of what really happens in cancer research and treatment.

Communicating about cancer and breaking down barriers is tough.  The very good news is that there are some very smart and determined people who are looking at ways to knock down some of the barriers to help advance cancer research.  They way that grants for cancer research are done has not fundamentally changed since World War II, but there are many positives and fundamental changes coming.

I have hope for the complex, nuanced and highly challenging road ahead.   There WILL be a better tomorrow for cancer patients and their loved ones.


P.S.: Have I mentioned that the views expressed in this post are mine and mine alone?  Oh, good.







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