Unraveling the Ribbon on Breast Cancer Reporting

ABC’s Good Morning America held what felt like a pep rally this morning to kick off “Breast Cancer Awareness Month”. The show’s tag line, “Go Pink!” – and it certainly did with anchors and guests in pink dresses, fans in pink t-shirts, a studio set lit up in pink lights and reporting on this disease through rosie-pink colored glasses.

Image from ABCnews.com

Considering how much time the network chose to devote to the topic there was little real news and not much to advance this important story which affects 1 out of every 8 women in the United States. Yes, GMA had the first interview with the doctor who treated Angelina Jolie but the topic of preventive mastectomies is one that has been covered frequently since Jolie’s announcement.

Dr. Richard Besser discussed a new ABC poll that finds women are confused about what age to start getting mammograms. Is that really surprising considering conflicting reports from different organizations over the past few years? (This WebMD article gives a good overview of the debate.)

I actually thought the best insight of the morning was from Bill Nye the Science Guy who happened to be on the program because he was booted off  Dancing with the Stars the previous evening. Nye said. “It is my suspection (sic) that medical doctors are doing all they can. They’re hustling, pumping their arms, everybody is trying different things; they’ve identified the gene. But maybe we need other scientific disciplines. Maybe some chemists, maybe some physicists. Maybe it’s the supercoiling of the DNA packed in there, not just the sequence.”

This is a conversation that would have been worth exploring… but that wouldn’t have been any fun. And it was clear the goal today was to have fun.

There was a “Steals and Deals” segment – discounted items on sale with proceeds going to breast cancer charities. It wasn’t made clear if all the proceeds were going to these charities or how the money would benefit women with the disease. I personally found this segment offensive.

GMA "Steals and Deals" / from ABC News

GMA “Steals and Deals” / from ABC News

There was also a cooking segment with Ann Romney who is a breast cancer survivor and a music segment with country singer Kellie Pickler

Of course it wouldn’t be a morning show without a gimmick. A “mammovan” was parked in Times Square where correspondent Amy Robach got her first mammogram live on air. The main message of the program seemed to be if you just get a mammogram everything will be okay.

ABC News correspondent Amy Robach getting a mammogram / from ABC News

What was glossed over is that there are limitations to mammogram screenings. According to the National Cancer Institute false positives on mammograms can result in over treatment. Mammograms can also miss a cancer diagnosis. Even anchor Robin Roberts mentioned that her breast cancer was not picked up by a mammogram. This is also true for four women I know. (I don’t want to dissuade any woman from getting a mammogram but be aware the test is not foolproof – nor does it prevent cancer. If you sense something is wrong ask your doctor to pursue further tests.)

The other ongoing theme of the program was all about survivors. The music bed under this morning’s segments included Gloria Gaynor’s, “I Will Survive” and Mandisa’s “Stronger”. Throughout the morning GMA aired live shots from around the country of survivor groups cheering – sometimes even with pom-poms.  At one point Sam Champion spoke with a fan who is a ten year survivor and she said, “It’s perfectly possible to survive.”  I truly hope that is the case for this woman but the reality is it’s also perfectly possible to die from this disease. That was never mentioned this morning. The American Cancer Society estimates more than 39,000 women will die from breast cancer this year.

My takeaway from today – it’s not the media’s job to be a cheerleader. It’s not the media’s job to give women a false sense of security. It’s also not the media’s job to scare them. We need to give them the facts and we need to advance this story forward. This is a serious disease and we do women a disservice by wrapping up breast cancer reporting in a pretty pink ribbon and pom-poms.


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