Potential of Cancer to Continue

As I scan through the various pulications on Multiple Myeloma I tend to see the words “Shows Potential” with great frequency. “Compound X shows great potential as an anti-Myeloma agent” or “Compound Y shows potential as a killing agent of Myeloma cells” is the way many statements read. One would think that with so much use of that phraseology that Multiple Myeloma would be “On the ropes” as one recent article claimed. It reminds me greatly of the claims of gas mileage improvement we saw in the 1970s and still do today.

“Our device will improve gas mileage by 23%” claims one manufacturer. “Our device will reduce fuel consumption by 18%” claims another. One would think that if someone strapped all of the available devices onto their engines that the gas tank would fill itself as it went down the road. But that’s not so, as so many people found out after spending their money only to find their gas mileage stayed the same –or went down. The same holds true for the myriad claims made about Multiple Myeloma. If what these writers were claiming was true, the employment of all of them would not only cure Multiple Myeloma, but make you so healthy that the aging clock would be reversed, sending the patient back to puberty.

I get that a lot of writers of these claims are trying to put a positive spin on things. I also get that many announcements attempt to foster investment dollars into certain research projects. But the fact of the matter is that way too much of what we read is just plain not true. Puffery, the act of overstating the value of something in order to promote it, is an accepted part of the media landscape. It exists no matter the venue. Whether an article is talking about fuel efficiency, the effectiveness of deodorant, or the value of a potential tool in the fight against cancer, there’s a 99% chance that the claims are going to be exaggerated. Fallacious claims are a mainstay of the world of media, and it’s really too bad. It’s too bad because many come to expect that we’re being lied to and that sets the stage for accurate claims to be drowned out in the din. Everyone knows the story of Peter and the Wolf because we live it every day.

I once read an article that claimed that a cure for Multiple Myeloma had been identified. At least, that was the gist of the article headline. But as I read the article with great interest –and hope, I ran into the word potential used in nested form. The body of the article claimed that a particular research held the potential to find a potential compound that had the potential  of possibly leading to a cure. In other words, there was no potential at all,  just the extrapolated hope of one –and that’s a horse of a very different color than announcing a cure. I tend to believe that articles like this are just plain bad journalism, and the text should never be allowed to see the light of day in distribution.

We are given way too much false hope by the writing of articles like that one, and our over exposure to blatant exaggerations is actually counter productive.  As with Peter and the Wolf, eventually the townspeople stop believing. I know that when it comes to reading about Muliple Myeloma research articles I have. When I read the articles about the happenings in the research world I take it all with a grain of salt. From the articles I learn the names of compounds that are being investigated and what mechanism they employ, but I wait to see which ones actually make it through trials. There is absolutely no reason to give any proposed treatment credibility until it reaches the post-trials stage of development. Prior to that, all of the information is pretty much pie in the sky and not worth the paper or photons used to print it. A treatment in human trials at least demonstrates that enough research and laboratory testing has occurred to give it some credence, and post-trials data provides information with enough specificity to rely on. This is also why I am totally against the outcry of demands that the research processes be fast tracked and allowed to jump over any of the steps of scientific proof before human beings are subjected to the treatment, whatever it may be.

As an airplane pilot I became aware of a common syndrome in flying called “Get There-itis.” It is one of the most deadly of situations in aviation because it reflects pilots sacrificing safe procedure and continuing their journey in spite of a situation that suggests an immediate landing. They want to get where they’re going. Pilots will continue on into bad weather, or continue on in the face of instruments warning of mechanical issues. Inevitably, the National Transportation Safety Board will issue a fatality report which assigns the cause of a crash to Pilot Error. The point is, that continuing to a destination in spite of nagging safety concerns often has catastrophic results. While I can certainly understand the motivations to get new treatments on the market, I can also understand why the trudging and sometimes tedious steps must be taken to get them there. People’s lives are at stake and that’s no time to be cavalier in the name of magical thinking. Stop and consider the number of treatment candidates that fail their trials and my point becomes clear. Even making it to the trials stage is not a guaranty of effectiveness or viability for individuals.

The way that so many journalists reflect research projects with an eye to sensationalism and promise is only a motivator to jump over the tried and true steps of treatment development. It causes cancer victims to vie for the new treatment and that places pressures on the developer and those who regulate development to jump over safety steps. And, of course, it causes a lot of false hope while muddying the waters of information distribution. It does enhance the volume of article readers, but it does so dishonestly.

In essence, it’s too bad that so many medical writers are not showing enough potential.