Why you can't rely on cancer center ads

‘They saved my life,’ the patients usually say. But here’s the better way to choose treatment.

Published: October 10, 2014 04:30 PM

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, when that particular cancer is in the spotlight. The No. 1 priority for any cancer patient should be to make informed treatment decisions. But according to a study by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, advertisements for cancer centers are too often long on emotion and short on realistic and useful information.

The study found that 85 percent of the ads were designed to tug at viewers’ heartstrings. Patient testimonials, usually focused on their survival against the odds, were used in almost half of them.

There is nothing wrong with offering hope, but it should be balanced with facts. Emphasizing success stories without saying what the typical patient might expect can be misleading. The ads also tend to omit any references to risk—less than 2 percent of those evaluated in the study mentioned it—and only 5 percent addressed costs or health care coverage.

Read more of our advice on preventing and treating cancer. See our hospital Ratings to compare institutions in your area.

“Modern cancer treatment has plenty to offer without resorting to exaggeration and emotional manipulation,” John Santa, M.D., M.P.H., medical director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center, said. So cut through the dramatic presentations and consider these factors instead.

Experience. Any center you consider should be able to provide details about its proficiency treating your type of cancer and what its success rates are.

Treatment. A cancer center ad might tout “advanced treatment options,” but that alone doesn’t mean much. Find out how your medical team plans to treat your cancer. More than one option might be available, so what outcomes should you expect from each? Are there clinical trials of new treatments? What’s the timeline for treatment?

Risk. Different treatments may have different risks and side effects, such as anemia or incontinence. Doctors should be willing to explain them to you.

Cost. Cancer care is expensive. If you have insurance, your choices may be limited to those in your plan. If cost is a concern, ask the center you’re considering whether it offers financial assistance. (Looking for insurance? See our health insurance rankings.)

Quality of life. Fighting “the battle” against can­cer is one part of your treatment. So is your comfort during that battle. What can be done to help you manage your symptoms? What kind of ac­cess will you have to your doctor? Are office hours convenient, and can you reach him or her during off-hours? If you’re traveling for care, does the center offer accommodations for you and your family?

Support services. Good cancer treat­ment goes beyond medical care. Ask about access to dietitians, physical therapists, social workers, psychologists, and other professionals who can help you. What services are offered to family members? How the center treats the person as well as the disease can make a big difference.

—Ian Landau

How to find a reliable cancer center

The following resources can help get you started in your search for a high-quality cancer center that fits your needs and situation.

Your primary care doctor

Most likely, he or she can recommend an oncologist, clinic, or both for treatment. Tapping into the experiences of relatives, friends, and colleagues can also be helpful, but be sure to do your own research.

Commission on Cancer

The more than 1,500 centers accredited by the Commission on Cancer, a program of the American College of Surgeons, are required to meet stan­dards for quality, follow treatment guidelines, and track performance to improve care. You can find accredited centers on the commission’s website.

NCI-designated cancer centers

All 61 of the National Cancer Institute’s designated cancer centers conduct research and treat patients. (Seven other centers do laboratory research.) The University of Pittsburgh study found that NCI-designated centers were more likely than nondesignated ones to use testi­monials and emotional appeals in their promos but that those centers were considered top-notch in treating cancer. For a list of them, go to cancer.gov.

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