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Monday, March 14, 2011

Advocacy Radio Tackles Cancer

Yes, I know, we're always on Matt Galloway, that CBC radio host who warbles his way into our mornings. He does get picked on in this space -- the poor soul! At this point, I suspect some are worried this blog is biased and Matt is a victim. They should not be. Matt's got a billion-dollar public utility on his side, CBC. Not only that, he's welcome to post rebuttals in our Commentary section, or rebut us on air. We're ready for our closeup, Mr DeMille!
    What's it all about this morning, eh? Cancer funding.
    This morning, Matt had a guest on, a lady, of course. Said lady was fighting breast cancer. She had discovered a fairly small tumor and wanted it treated with a very expensive new drug. Treatment would cost $50,000, she said. The province said No, that's new, that's too costly, and the cancer is too small (therefore it's early enough to treat it conventionally).
        After all, this is a public health-care system subsidized by Ontario taxpayers. It's not Free Unlimited Care-on-Demand; it's a rationed system. Based on triage, it can't afford to treat everyone with all the latest drugs.
     On the radio, the lady was indignant-- also, articulate, highly educated, very upper class. Matt wished her well in her just cause; in reply, she said she "owed it to my family to keep struggling" for her $50,000 health subsidy. Perhaps she thought this sounded self-sacrificing.
    Not that cruelty is in order here; despite the irony in my last paragraph, I heartily sympathise, and understand her frustration. I understand her fear, and wish her speedy good health. Having lost some of my dearest friends to breast cancer, I could not be indifferent.
     But, in media as in life there is a thing called context. No phenomenon can be understood without knowing its context. 
     Guess what: other people have cancer too. We have to ask: Who is entitled to exactly what in Ontario Health Care? Also, from the medical standpoint, Why? Where does the needed care get defined?
     Women suffer the trauma of breast cancer; but there are other malignancies about, deadly ones. Also, there are cancers that, like breast cancer, are sex-specific and deadly. In men, there is prostate cancer. These cancers are subject to standard triage, the sorting out of early, medium, and emergency cases.
     Did Matt point this out? Did he frame his interview with that reality? After all, a show about breast cancer is not a show about learning the clarinet in retirement. Covering the topic on radio implies covering it as a responsible journalist.
     To be fair, Matt did add a few words of balance. He did suggest to his guest that "lots of people request new and costly treatments and the system can't subsidize them all." This was good, but it was an after-thought. It was loaded into a tiny, late-coming single sentence! In no way did it frame the discussion.
     In other words, the show was much closer to advocacy than it was to responsible journalism. 
     Here's the essential question that Matt did NOT ask: To what extent is your health statistically compromised by using existing treatments?
     Or: In terms of risk, does your early tumor require this new treatment for you to survive?
     Or: Given the population of cancer patients and their risks, is it justified to guarantee your survival while we correspondingly risk other deaths?
     These are the hard questions we needed to hear, questions we will never get from the Women's Advocacy Radio.
     One other thing we needed was the voice of scientific authority, an actual, live doctor or researcher. Did Matt try to contact one? Was no-one at the Ministry available? Could he not have phoned someone, talked to them, and just sort of...taken notes?
     And was I the only one in his audience interested in their answers? Or is his listenership composed exclusively of women who all want the system to fund blanket coverage of every breast-cancer treatment under the sun.
       Possibly, it is. Don't blame 'em for that, it's only natural. But this channel is Public Radio, not Women's Advocacy.
       Arriving in Ontario several months ago, I checked into a "family practice" of medicine. The first thing I told my new doctor (actually, an intern; I will never be allowed to see a practicing doctor) was this: I am required to have a colonoscopy every 5 years. My time is nigh.
      Oh, she said, We don't do that in Ontario; we give you a blood test. Seeing my shock, she recovered and said, Oh, but if you begin to have symptoms, serious cancer symptoms, then we'd order the colonoscopy and it would be covered.
       Breast-cancer research is funded so well in North America that the US coalition dedicated to it now boasts of eradicating the disease. In fact, it has set a deadline for total eradication: 2020. Now, that's confidence! We do wish them well. However, by contrast, prostate cancer, killer of millions of men, is under-funded. Men do not whine about their health; men do not clamor for $50,000 special treatments, and men certainly don't have the CBC in their corner.


  1. Several times when I've heard the neglect of prostate cancer brought up, the response has been that men need to do more to promote the cause. Maybe it's just the Monday morning fog, but isn't that ... blaming the victim? I thought that was taboo, or is that only for certain victims?

  2. Exactly. As I've pointed out, it's not in men's nature to fuss and worry about their health. Thank Evolution or God for that!! Also, not so long ago, any advocacy of men's health was called "misogynist" -- because the real story was all about the medical world being indifferent to women. I have heard women complain bitterly about the pain they have to endure when they take a mammogram: that this, too, shows that medicine is all male, all deaf to women's suffering. Out out politeness, I refrained from asking them the last time they had a catheter inserted into their penis.