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The Misuse Of A National Television Platform To Promote Health Information

In a highly-promoted appearance, legendary Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden went on ABC’s Good Morning America yesterday to announce that he had kept silent since 2007 about his diagnosis with prostate cancer.

First, let me say that I’ve always liked this guy. Funny. Charming. Coached teams that were fun to watch.

But that doesn’t make you an effective communicator on prostate cancer.

If you listen very carefully to the following clip (it took me 3 times watching the clip before I caught this), you’ll hear interviewer Robin Roberts rapidly mention that Bowden “is being compensated” for his appearance by “On the Line.”

On the Line” is sponsored by several entities including two drug companies that make prostate cancer drugs and by Project Zero – whose executive made news on this blog recently by writing that Dr. Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society “has killed more men by giving them an excuse to not be tested.”

You could probably find less conflicted sources than a man who’s being reimbursed by an outfit funded by those sponsorships.

Here’s an excerpt from Coach Bowden telling his story on ABC:

“So anyway, he was telling me I had cancer in my prostate, and this is what we need to do and what do we want to do? And they decided what to do and did it the next day and then six months later they checked up and everything was gone, so I’m a survivor.”

Nothing about what the treatment was like.

Nothing about shared decision-making. (Doesn’t sound like much shared decision-making took place: “…and they decided what to do…”)

Just snap, crackle, pop: diagnosed one day, treated the next day, apparently a piece of cake. Nothing about side effects of treatment – a great source of concern to most men.

He kept referring to “one out of 6 men are going to get it.”

Coach Bowden: “Now if I told you you’re going to fly to California tomorrow. I’m going to fly you out there, but there’s one out of six chances that plane is going to crash…”


Bowden: “…you wouldn’t go. Haha. You wouldn’t go. Haha.”

Now think for a moment about what we know about prostate cancer:

• The American Cancer Society reminds us:

“Some prostate cancers can grow and spread quickly, but most of the time, prostate cancer grows slowly. Autopsy studies show that many older men (and even younger men) who died of other diseases also had prostate cancer that never caused a problem during their lives. These studies showed that as many as 7 to 9 out of 10 men had prostate cancer by age 80. But neither they nor their doctors even knew they had it.”

• So prostate cancers are often harmless- and some – especially in men the coach’s age are often regarded as appropriate for “watchful waiting” rather than aggressive treatment. Then think about whether a 1 in 6 chance of being in a plane crash is really comparable to a 1 in 6 chance of being diagnosed with prostate cancer.

That 1 in 6 – like the oft misunderstood 1 in 8 for breast cancer in women – is a lifetime risk. The National Cancer Institute reminds men:

“Sometimes it is more useful to look at the probability of developing cancer of the prostate between two age groups. For example, 8.30% of men will develop cancer of the prostate between their 50th and 70th birthdays.”

So instead of the 1 in 6 number, in the age range of 50 – 70, the risk is 8 in 100. Sounds a little different, doesn’t it?

Anchor Robin Roberts could have helped matters by asking information-seeking questions rather than throwing up fan-like softballs. For fans, it was good to hear from the Coach again. For men trying to learn about prostate cancer during prostate cancer awareness month, it was a good time to go to the bathroom.

Any Florida State football fan knows what “wide right” means – recalling painful memories of famed missed kicks in bitter rivalry games against the University of Miami.

Unfortunately Coach Bowden – and especially ABC – were “wide right” this time as well.


• I’m very happy to see that the Coach appears to be doing great.

• This is about journalism – and about the use or misuse of a national television platform.

• This was about opportunity missed. ABC editorial decision-makers will undoubtedly say to themselves, “Nice job. We covered prostate cancer awareness.” No, you didn’t.

• Just read the source material I cited from the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute to see how much more useful information you could have disseminated.

*This blog post was originally published at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview Blog*

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