Last week, I had the honor of moderating a panel discussion on Capitol Hill on behalf of the Association of American Cancer Institutes and the American Association for Cancer Research. This panel was sponsored by the congressional cancer caucus and focused on the importance of the nation’s premier cancer research centers. In such settings, it can be challenging to talk about the vital importance of the work done at our cancer centers in a way that highlights the hope without appearing to be resorting to hype.
Indeed, those who follow the news know that even the most respected public figures, including highly respected news anchors, can give in to the temptation of exaggeration. In news about cancer research, a week doesn’t go by without a friend or family member telling me of story in the news about some aspect of cancer research and asking me if I think it is really a breakthrough. The media loves headline-grabbing stories, and their stories about cancer research are no different. Most reports in the news about cancer research advances are based on real progress that represents valuable, but not terribly dramatic, research findings. More often than not, these advances are presented in a context that distorts the importance of the finding. We hear almost weekly reports of “major breakthroughs” that, if taken as reported, could be interpreted as implying we have reached the turning point that will finally allow us to defeat cancer once and for all.
While is it nice to see progress in cancer research receiving attention in the press (which influences the public and our political leaders), misrepresenting the impact of important but modest advances can lead to false expectations and a loss of confidence in the entire cancer research effort. The result of such exaggeration, particularly when it occurs frequently, is that talking about the vital importance of steady, if less dramatic, progress gets overlooked at best, and is felt to be disingenuous at worst.
So … what do I do to convey the hope without the hype?
First, when talking about progress in cancer research I avoid certain words except in very exceptional circumstances. The words “breakthrough,” “defeat,” “conquer,” and “eliminate” are now used so often in discussing cancer research, that they have lost their psychological impact and, indeed, their meaning. I just don’t use them when talking about cancer research.
Second, I highlight that cancer research is a marathon, not a sprint. Yes, there are major discoveries that have huge impact, but even the most important of these don’t impact on the burden of cancer overnight. Basic discoveries in the laboratory lead to design of new strategies that are then tested in clinical trials, and eventually a change in how we prevent, detect, or treat cancer. Even in the best of circumstances, this complex process takes years.
Third, I don’t let my desire to avoid hype prevent me from highlighting hope.
- We ARE making progress against cancer.
- This progress IS taking place faster than ever before.
- Decades of advances in fields such as molecular oncology and cancer immunotherapy, despite their complexity, WILL have a major impact on our ability to help patients with cancer.
- We CAN leverage research findings to reduce the pain and suffering caused by cancer.
- We COULD make faster progress with improved funding.
I did my best to highlight the hope without the hype during the panel discussion on Capitol Hill. Indeed, it is important for us all to see beyond the hype and focus on the hope as we work together on accelerating progress against cancer.