Exciting News

Today, the Association of Health Care Journalists announced its 2018 Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism—and I’m one of the winners!

I received the Third Place award in the Trade Journalism category for my article “Survivors Cast Adrift,” which was published in the Summer 2018 issue of Cancer Today.

I’m hoping to make it to Baltimore in May for Health Journalism 2019, the AHCJ’s annual conference, where the winners will receive their awards.

Read my winning article here.

Pharma banks on cancer patients who are ‘determined to keep fighting’

Promoted ads and videos for the cancer drug Cyramza (ramucirumab) began showing up on Twitter in May. They’ve also appeared in print publications. The ads encourage you to read the words of “determined Cyramza patients” whose faces come alive with color as phrases such as “I want to keep a flower garden” “I want to dance off-beat with my wife, while my daughters laugh and call us embarrassing” animate.

The ad, which has been viewed more than 1.1 million times, sells the idea that Cyramza will breathe new life into patients who are “determined to keep fighting.” The drug’s manufacturer, Eli Lilly and Company, didn’t introduce the idea that cancer is a war to be fought as aggressively as possible. But its ad is banking—literally—on the fact that people with cancer and their family members and friends believe it.

That belief is not innocuous. In fact, it causes real patient harm.

Learn more in my newest blog post on HealthNewsReview

Will a new flu drug ‘upend treatment’?

The headline on STAT makes a bold statement: “A flu drug—shown to reduce duration of symptoms—could upend treatment in U.S.” The next two paragraphs ramp up the excitement regarding the FDA’s announcement that it has granted priority review to a new single-dose flu drug—baloxavir marboxil—that is “unlike anything else on the market.”

We’ve seen this excitement before. There was a lot of enthusiasm about Tamiflu when it was first introduced. But in all the hoopla about Tamiflu being able to reduce the duration of flu symptoms—by a day!—an important point was lost. Yes, the flu makes you miserable. But the real concern about the flu is that in some populations—in particular children, the elderly, and those with impaired immune systems or other health conditions—the flu can be deadly. Yet there is limited evidence that Tamiflu will prevent flu-related complications, hospitalization, or death.

It would be great if there was a drug that reduced deaths from the flu. But Genentech has provided no evidence that baloxavir marboxil is this drug.

Read the full review of STAT’s story and learn more about the new flu drug in my blog post for HealthNewsReview.org

About That New Migraine Drug

I am one of the millions of Americans who suffer from migraine attacks. I’m also one of the millions of Americans who has tried a wide array of medication that are supposed to help prevent these attacks from occurring or stop them as they are starting.  GettyImages-681797068-300x270My friends and family are well aware of the impact my migraines–and the side effects of the drugs I take to prevent them–have had and continue to have on my quality of life (and, by extension, on them as well). So, not too surprisingly, they were eager to tell me about this great new drug they had read about that would surely end my pain.

Also not too surprisingly, the pharma hype they heard about this new drug, Aimovig, far exceeds its benefits. As the title of this story review I wrote for HealthNewsReview about an NBC article that covered the drug’s approval explains, decreasing migraine frequency by 50 percent sounds great–until you read the fine print.

You can read my full review here.


Liver Cancer on the Rise

Liver cancer incidence and death rates are increasing rapidly. Although there is no screening test for the disease, minimizing risk factors—hepatitis B and C, smoking, obesity and type 2 diabetes—could prevent many cases from developing.

WHEN FRANK GARDEA was diagnosed with liver cancer in March 2013, he never expected he’d live to ring in 2014—let alone see the calendar turn to 2018. Neither did his doctors.8.5-liver-cancer-on-the-rise-1500-WEB-1

That March day, the 59-year-old resident of Woodland Hills, California, showed up at a Los Angeles County emergency room with severe abdominal pain. The pain itself wasn’t new; he’d been talking to doctors about it for two years. But the intensity was. Soon, the ER team discovered what Gardea’s other doctors had not seen: an 8-centimeter tumor on his liver.

Tests showed Gardea had hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common type of liver cancer in adults. He also had hepatitis C and early stages of cirrhosis. Gardea says his doctors told him that the tumor’s size and the underlying liver disease left him with a poor prognosis, and they advised him to get his affairs in order. Gardea felt certain he had only a few more months to live, but then, by chance, other doctors doing rounds saw his chart.

Read my full article in the spring issue of Cancer Today.

The Cost of Treatment

With efforts underway to modify or repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, many cancer patients have spoken out about how affordable health insurance kept them from financial ruin. Magnifying their voices are the surveys and studies that illustrate the devastating monetary toll a cancer diagnosis can bring. Researchers have attempted to capture this distress with the term “financial toxicity,” which places the effect of high treatment costs on quality of life on an equal footing with the toxicity of the treatments themselves.

I explore the ramifications of the costs of cancer treatment in the Winter 2017/2018 issue of Cancer Today.

Here’s an excerpt:

When Candace Henley was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in June 2003, her fear was tempered by the knowledge that she had good health insurance through her job as a bus driver with the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).12-the-cost-of-treatment-600x200-WEB

At the time, Henley was 36 and raising five daughters, ages 4 to 15, alone. She had pulled off the American dream: a single-family home with a backyard. “We had a great life,” she recalls. “We had great health insurance. [Everything] was as perfect as it could be.” Her problems began when she didn’t have enough savings to stay afloat financially after her cancer treatments left her unable to work.

Every family that faces cancer experiences the shock of learning that the disease is now at their doorstep. But once the diagnosis is made, paths can quickly diverge. The first fork in the road: whether you have health insurance and what type you have. The second: whether you have savings to cover deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses.


New Year, New Opportunities

I’m excited to announce that I’ve been asked to be a contributor to HealthNewsReview.org. I’ve long admired their work, and am pleased to join a team of writers and editors who are committed to helping improve how medical research is promoted in news releases, written about by journalists and understood by the public. The ultimate goal: more educated health consumers who don’t fall prey to “miracle” cures or set their hopes on”groundbreaking” discoveries that are sure to “revolutionize” care–yet have only been tested in mice.

To that end: Here’s my first blog post:

‘Clinically proven’ ear plugs for migraines make news headlines, with little evidence they work

Do you have migraine attacks?

Use a $12 over-the-counter ear plug-type device called MigraineX, a recent news release insisted, and you’ll experience an 81% improvement in weather-related migraine headaches.

Some news organizations took the PR bait.

Read the full post.  And feel free to comment.


Fearless Friends

I met Lori Marx-Rubiner in November 2016 at a two-day Think Tank coordinated and hosted by Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation’s Metastatic Breast Cancer Collateral Damage Project. (My freelance work includes writing and editing for the Foundation.)

As a woman living with metastatic breast cancer and as a breast cancer advocate, Lori was passionate about the Foundation’s project and she spoke eloquently throughout the meeting about her hopes for what the group could accomplish. As we chatted during a break, I had the feeling that had I still lived in Los Angeles we’d have made a coffee date–and kept it.

1.3-cover-fall-2017-158x203-WEBFive months later, at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2017, two of the editors of Cancer Today, which is published by the AACR, met Lori and her best friend and fellow advocate AnneMarie Ciccarella. The two women were presenting a poster in a scientific session at the meeting, and as photos from that day attest, they were both beaming with pride. Within weeks, the editors at Cancer Today made the decision to break with protocol and to have the cover of the Fall issue of the magazine feature two survivors—Lori and AnneMarie. I was the lucky journalist asked to tell their story.

I interviewed Lori in early June, before she set off on a bucket-list cruise to Alaska with her husband and son. We made plans for me to follow up with any additional questions that might come up during my reporting. A few weeks later I spoke with AnneMarie. Soon I was rounding out the story with interviews with other researchers and advocates. As I was writing, I learned Lori was in the hospital. Before she had left for Alaska, she had told me her cancer had progressed and she would be starting on a new treatment. But it was no match for her cancer. She transitioned to palliative care.

Lori died on August 2, 2017, less than two months after our interview and while the issue was still in production. Before her death, Lori and AnneMarie decided they wanted the article to run in Cancer Today as it had originally been written. We have honored those wishes. Here’s their story.

A New Look For Clinical Trials

If you wanted to create a playlist of music that would appeal to many different types of people, you probably wouldn’t ask only middle-aged white men in Los Angeles to tell you you their favorite songs. More likely, you’d include people of many different racial and32-clinical-trials-175x175-WEB ethnic backgrounds from all parts of the country: some who grew up with jazz or salsa music, others who were raised on rock ‘n’ roll, and still others who know their Bach from their Beethoven.

Cancer treatments are kind of like a playlist: Not everyone responds to them in the same way. To get clinical trial results that will be applicable to the broadest range of people, researchers need to enroll women and men of different ages and racial backgrounds in their studies. Yet, when you look at a room of clinical trial participants, you typically see a preponderance of higher-income, middle-aged white men, most of  whom don’t have health problems besides their cancer. But what about African-American women with cancer and diabetes? Or elderly Latinos with kidney problems in addition to cancer? Will the treatment be safe or effective for them? If they aren’t included in the clinical trial there is no way to know.

My feature story in the summer issue of Cancer Today explores efforts underway to increase enrollment and widen access to clinical trials. Read my story.