Accepting the Idea of Death
Cancer Keeps You Busy

Crabby Old Lady and Cancer on TV

When something newly interests us, we naturally become more sensitized to it. We pay more attention, we notice it more and like Crabby Old Lady recently, may wonder if it is just her or is there a lot more on television these days about cancer?

Even if she's wrong, it feels that way and a lot of it is disturbing.

What comes to mind first are those commercials for the various cancer-only treatment centers in cities around the United States, some of them for-profit chains. They and others spend a lot of money chasing after new patients via TV commercials and not infrequently run half a dozen of the same commercial in a single one-hour program.

Crabby supposes there is nothing wrong with that in a capitalist economy where many lawmakers and citizens believe healthcare is a privilege and not a right. What she objects to is how the commercials try to make viewers believe that if you travel to their hospital, you will be cured of cancer.

Most of us, Crabby included, don't pay close attention to TV commercials – usually just enough to fit into the periphery of our minds while we think about something else and that's where the producers create their edge, counting on viewers to hear the music and not the lyric.

Of course, when you listen word-for-word, they don't use the word cure. But most of us get the general impression of becoming cancer-free that they intend us to hear.

You will have to trust Crabby on that or track down some commercials online for yourself because Crabby cannot bear to watch them anymore. She is all too aware these days, given her own cancer, how cruel it is to imply a cure when none can or should be promised.

A couple of facts: in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health, cancer is the number two killer after heart disease; just under 600,000 people a year die of cancer. During their lifetimes, about 40 percent of Americans will be told they have cancer.

Those are large numbers but that doesn't mean progress in treatment isn't being made. As The Economist reported in September,

”Cancer has become more survivable over recent decades owing to a host of advances...The survival rate for leukemia in America has almost doubled, from 34% in the mid-1970s to 63% in 2006-12...

“Caught early, many cancers are now highly treatable. Three out of four British men who received a prostate-cancer diagnosis in the early 1970s did not live for another ten years; today four out of five do. Other cancers, such as those of the lung, pancreas and brain, are harder to find and treat.”

In her heightened state of awareness, Crabby has also wondered if more TV dramas aren't making cancer a plot point. She first noticed what appeared to be an uptick over the summer and only this week started making note of incidences. Just a few days ago she jotted down this line from a show whose name she doesn't recall:

“He had pancreatic cancer. The doc said he'd be dead in a few months.”

Oof. Dear god in heaven, do we have to say such things so starkly? Crabby wonders.

Well, of course we do. Writers should use whatever knowledge and information they have to move the story forward and not pull punches while they're doing it.

But here's the difference: The drama writer is stating a a well-known fact. It reinforces belief in the veracity of the story making it more immersive and, the producers hope, bring more viewers leading to larger profit.

The commercial writer, on the other hand, is trying to fool viewers by implying that there is a happy outcome to cancer treatment every time. Also for profit.

Many of the cancer centers – profit and non-profit – are involved in important research that over time moves the needle forward on cancer discoveries and treatment. It's their media approach that makes them, at best, unkind and makes Crabby Old Lady queasy to think some viewers might believe what is being implied.

On the other hand, all this could be that Crabby has enough cancer in her own life right now to be able to tolerate what seems to her to be an excess of media references, some of which make cancer seem like a day in the park. It is not.


Would the drug manufacturers add the disclaimer regarding contraindications to their pills in their commercials if it wasn't mandated by law? Perhaps hospitals should do the same thing.
Announcer (speaking rapidly): "Being a patient at XYZ hospital does not constitute a cure, reduction of symptoms or risk of death. Long term stay at XYZ may cause you to have a life-long hatred of Jello and chocolate pudding."

Thank you for this post & I couldn't agree with you more. If you notice the other zinger is the one that advertises the meds that will "prolong life" if you have XYZ cancer. Not only are these ads an aggravation they are on way too often. Also I think the amount of all commercials has increased & the good shows on TV are shorter. If I were so inclined I would get a stop watch & time them.

Someone should send your blog to the op-ed page of the NYTs. It packs a wallop without the whining! Thank you, thank you. I have never used the mute button so often as I have these past many months. Dee:)

Not only are those cancer advertisers illusionists but many do not accept Medicare.

I too heard that pancreatic cancer comment on Wisdom of the Crowd. My mind immediately went to you. In the back of my mind I was thinking, "Glad Ronni won't hear that," thinking you probably didn't watch tv shows like this.

Right on, Crabby. Not only are there too many ads related to cancer, there are far too many ads by big pharma and others about all sorts of illnesses and treatments. When we wonder why the U.S. spends more than other nations on health care and gets worse results, we should consider the tremendous cost of this advertising that is passed on to us. And it is all unnecessary. Physicians are able to get the necessary information about legitimate drugs and treatments, and make better analyses than lay people can. The TV stuff is not the avenue of choice for communication that is necessary in the health care field.

........And another thing, all these XYZ cancer drugs on TV ad infinitum, cost a fortune & so do treatments in these "Cancer Centers." A close friend told me that a friend of hers whom she had worked with in the past, called to tell her that the treatment for her Hep C cost almost $90K!!!!!!! Being a healthcare consultant for many years, she was fighting a major health insurer who did not expect an "expert" to give them such a bad finally settled amicably but took a lot of effort. Crabby, keep on truckin'!!!! Dee:)

You know, for me the "regular" TV channels are so darned negative, from ads to dramas fueled by characters with zero awareness, that I just don't. They are, like so much else in our environment lately, too toxic. The ads for health products and services are at the top of the heap........I actually saw an ad for a portable oxygen outfit, where the woman looked about forty, totally fit, and verrrry happy. Not to say that it might not happen.........but c'mon, that's playing to everyone's worst inclinations. No matter how sick or old you are, America still wants that big zappy-happy smile, scheesch. Fortunately, the public channels, though far from perfect, are way easier to take.

While I've not had experience with cancer (yet) I have had chronic back pain for years. No doctor nor specialist has been able to determine the cause nor find a reasonable treatment. I started seriously exploring the pain clincs advertised on TV and those offering stem cell therapy. The red flags went up when special offers were made if you signed up immediately or in a very timely manner. What it boils down to, when it comes to TV advertisments promising nirvana, if it sounds too good to be true trust your instincts.

As I recall there used to be a law that you couldn't advertise medications? Then big corporations hired lobbyist to change the law in order to advertise their product on TV and in magazines so the patient would go to the doctor and say they needed it. Whoever thought of that should have gotten a big raise.

The cancer centers are the same--snake oil if you ask me.

Today medicine is not about people ---- it is about profit for shareholders.

Lucky for us there are dedicated and nice people further down the chain that really do care about people and do TRY not to put profit above people.

I couldn't agree more. In TV shows, all ailments are "curable" with that infamous "positive attitude"--except when they're not. And we don't talk about that part.

Meanwhile, cut to the commercial--where an endless visual parade of smiling, active, happy "patients" glide across perfect lawns, serve up rollicking family picnics, and walk an endless series of cheerful dogs on sunny days at the beach. In the background audio of course scrolls the endless parade of side-effect horrors that "may happen." In a typical prime time evening slot, it seems like these commercials must run at least a dozen times.

My husband and I have mean--but so funny--private jokes about these commercials. Bet you do, too.

Did you know that the United States and New Zealand are the only two countries that allow direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs?

I was vehemently opposed to DTC (direct to consumer) advertising by pharmaceutical companies when it bega. I remain so. No good can come of ads to an ignorant, uncritical public -- other than profits for the drug companies when that same public demands those drugs from their doctor.

As for cancer centers, etc. I'm a doctor's daughter and grew up in the "golden age of medicine" when it was considered unprofessional if not unethical for doctors to advertise. Most legitimate doctors still don't. Which makes me all the more wary of cancer centers and other medical facilities that do advertise -- usually blatantly and misleadingly.

Cancer in TV shows? Hey, they need to generate drama. Cancer and heart problems are the mainstays for that. I don't think there's more of it now. Probably, understandably, you've just become more aware of it.

I hate, hate, HATE those commercials, and the entire concept of for-profit treatment.

¡Que viva Crabby!



I have pretty much given up on TV, probably starting when Mr. Cronkite and others of his ilk left the air. Well except for a nice little (er) Answer and Question game in the early evening and when a certain basketball team takes the floor.

But we get this drivel in newspapers and magazines as well. A full page, magnificent spread for some cure or other, followed by (legally required) dense pages of contraindications, and then a final lovely page of hope.

While I feel very very sorry for those who are taken in by this stuff, with a little practice, for me anyhow, it has become fairly easy to it tune out.

RIght on Ronni.

Our television shows are constantly interrupted by freakishly named medications.

The creators of these products must figure the longer the med name, the more it will attract consumers.

Do the med creators sit boozing around a campfire like in the movie "Blazing Saddles" and throw out suggestions, or do they throw a bag of letters off a high rise roof and copy what lands below?

Add to that the phony sounding voiceover actors that chant the side effects of medication Kraikczembroizumbkeazoid.

Who wants to hear that?

My cat used to flatten her ears and exit the room when a certain med ad interrupted our show.

The voiceover person had an Ethel Merman sounding voice.

My cat had her hat on straight.

Some of those TV commercials make it sound like you're going to a spa.
All the patients are so happy. It's so easy to suck people in.

I agree. I myself have had breast cancer...and now my daughter is being treated for it. I am offended by the repeated commercials which seem to say that this particular treatment or place will be the cure. False promises are very hurtful.
I was fortunate to have excellent care...but I did not find it in a commercial. It is not only cancer that is the target of these glossy ads promising cures: arthritis, alzheimer's, fibromyalgia and other ailments are also targets. Very unethical.

I have been listening to Freakonomics podcasts from last year... while I pedal the stationary bike. The one today titled "Bad Medicine" was about how Pharma puts its thumb on the scale when evaluating new drugs. Some new drugs are life saving breakthroughs. Many are only modestly better than the older drugs... if that. In addition trials are done with perfect patients. People who have only one ailment and often (especially with cancer and blood pressure drugs) are decades younger than the typical patient. They recover! Yea! But, as the doctors who were interviewed said, "in the real world", patients are older and sicker and have multiple issues. The newer drug may actually be worse for them than the older one. The in-the-trenches doctors have no way of knowing. Possibly Pharma doesn't know either because those real world patients are excluded from the trials.

My husband died of brain cancer 5 months after diagnosis. The adds do promote cures unfairly, but so do some doctors. His oncologist actually told us both, he had some patients that after chemo and radiation went on to live many more years in remission and were basically cured. Well only later knowing more about glioblastoma, did I realize this was a bold lie. It is always fatal and usually in just a few months or perhaps 3/4 years. So doctors lie too, whether they do so in kindness or arrogance of their abilities, I don't know.

Also I DVR EVERYTHING, so I never watch commercials. They are often so loud and obnoxious or stupid, that I'd actually not buy the product.

Not only TV but magazines as well.

My comment has to do with the (mostly women's) magazines that run almost monthly upbeat stories about people who "beat cancer". It paints a very inaccurate picture as you get the impression that it is common practice to beat it. (Or maybe I was just being naïve.)

Case in point. My sister (who died from breast cancer in 2012 at 60) did not have health care and never saw a doctor. Probably would not have even if she could afford it due to previous bad experiences. At any rate she was diagnosed with cancer in July 2011 and started Chemo. She was doing ok. She knew she needed surgery so she told me to save my trip until she needed me then (she was in upstate NY and I was in Texas) so I never spoke to her doctor or got much information from her.

When she did have surgery in January 2012 she never really recovered and died 5 weeks later.

Turns out after finally speaking with her oncologist in January she had a very large tumor and she had, at best, maybe 2 years.

I'm not blaming anybody but myself for not paying more attention but I let my expectations keep me from getting more involved sooner. This expectation was based on too limited knowledge that she would be fine and "beat this thing".

Once I got back to the office (I was out for 5 weeks) and started talking about it I found many people with similar stories about their relatives not surviving.

So my point is there are a lot of places in the culture where we are given the impression that "beating cancer" is commonplace and it not the big bad thing it really is.

That is why I agree that the Cancer Center ads are misleading - they also give the impression that "we can do it if nobody else can". Which way take people away from family and support when they could stay closer to home and get just as good care.

I've believed for a long time--ever since it started--that advertising of pharmaceuticals and healthcare in general directly to the public was a colossally BAD IDEA. I suppose the argument could be made that such advertising produces better informed patients, but our nation's mortality and morbidity statistics do not bear that out. It's dismaying to see the constant stream of such ads that have all but taken over many TV shows. If I'm watching the show at all, I make a point of tuning out the ad.

I totally agree with Paula about the misleading scenarios of blissful family BBQs, beach walks and spousal bonding that are shown on-screen while an endless list of drastic and possibly fatal side effects is fast-forwarded in the background. Of special note is an ad I especially detest for a super-pricey drug that treats a very specific form of lung cancer. When I checked the fine print, its promise of "living longer" actually boils down to about 4 months longer for most patients, and that 4 months almost certainly won't be enjoyed.

I concluded long ago that if I were diagnosed with advanced cancer late in life (say, 80+, an age I now have reached), with a very low probability of remission despite super-toxic treatment and a high incidence of debilitating side effects, I would pass. No one knows for sure what they would do in a given situation, but I think I would "walk the walk" that I've been talking for the past 40 years. BTW, I also hate the concept of for-profit medicine. Healthcare should rarely involve profit: the two concepts are totally incompatible except for some instances of elective procedures.

I have always believed that I am the luckiest cancer "survivor" in the history of the world. Of course I was scared to death (sorry no pun intended) at the time, but soon became aware of how fortunate I was. I was diagnosed with breast cancer through my very first mammogram, which didn't happen untll 1990, when I was 53. My then PCP discovered I had not had an annual gynecological exam for a dozen years or so, since the time I had moved from one state to another. He insisted I correct that, and the mammo, showing a barely visible stage 1 tumor, was the result. I was later told that without a mammo my tumor would probably not have been discovered for at least another 2 years, and then it would have been a much more serious thing. I've since had 26 more annual mammograms, all showing no recurrence of cancer. The other 364 days of the year I rarely even remember that I once was a "cancer patient". But I still shudder every time I see one of these ads, and do agree that they not only unprofessional but downright immoral.

Hey, while we're at it - how about the lack of geriatricians? Maybe because that specialty doesn't pay very well? And it's badly needed. Old people need their own doctors - just as children need theirs.

Why don't we offer a free medical education for all those who specialize in geriatrics?

In the U.K. the seemingly incessant ads are for charities - charities that provide specialist nurses to people with cancer, charities that that carry out research into cures for cancer; charities that provide support to children with cancer. My kids joke about it being my personal reminder service- in case I could ever forget having cancer. I do wonder if the charities have even considered the effect of all this advertising on those of us who have or have had cancer.

Everything I think on the subject, Ronni!

Don't get me started on our health care system. I am depressed already from the daily dose of political news.

Of course health care is a right and not a privilege. but with the Republicans trying to privatize everything from social security to education to prisons it becomes so overwhelming that I just don't know where to begin short of voting for anybody that is not a Republican. Fat chance that they will do anything to stop the false advertising on cancer treatments or anything else.

Well now I am more depressed. Sigh!

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