The ’80s song “I Want a New Drug” might as well be the soundtrack for The New York Times and NBC. Both media have dramatically changed the tune on two prescription drugs they once hailed as “breakthroughs” and “promising new treatments.”
On July 12, the news outlets reversed their 1998 positions on cancer drugs raloxifene and tamoxifen. Eight years ago the drugs were lauded, but now these are “dangerous drugs,” according to one cancer patient who won’t even take them.
On May 26, 1998, the Times raised the hopes of cancer victims, saying, “For weeks, a barrage of good news about cancer in people has come from scientists and public health officials.” The article, titled “Good News from the Front in the War Against Cancer,” went on to catalogue the benefits of raloxifene and tamoxifen. Dr. Lawrence K. Altman, the article’s author, said tamoxifen reduced the risk of developing breast cancer by 45 percent in one study of high-risk women.
Altman cited another study that claimed raloxifene could “reduce the risk of breast cancer without raising the risk of uterine cancer, a side effect of tamoxifen.” He also admonished society to do more “to make new or experimental treatments available” to cancer patients, including treatments involving the two drugs. Additionally, Altman’s upbeat story said some forms of cancer might soon become nothing more than “manageable chronic diseases.”
But on July 12, 2006, in an about face, the Times published an Associated Press article that now emphasized the risks of raloxifene. The article claimed that raloxifene did not “lower the risk of death, hospitalization or heart attack.” The AP piece said the risks associated with taking raloxifene were more difficult to treat than the cancer it would be preventing.
The article quoted a federal study saying that those on the drug had a 49-percent greater risk of having a fatal stroke than those on a placebo. The article quoted Stanford School of Medicine disease prevention researcher Marcia Stefanick saying the prevention benefits were moderate and did not justify the risks of taking raloxifene.
NBC made a similar switch, extolling the benefits of these drugs before using scare tactics regarding the drugs’ risks. In May 1998, both raloxifene and tamoxifen made several appearances on NBC. On the May 19, 1998, “Today,” NBC’s Ann Curry said, “There is even more promising news in the fight against breast cancer today. At a medical meeting in Los Angeles, two drugs are reported to dramatically reduce the risk.” Curry was speaking of raloxifene and tamoxifen.
The previous day on NBC’s “Nightly News,” Tom Brokaw told viewers they weren’t alone if they couldn’t keep up with all the “breakthroughs” in breast cancer treatment. “There’s a great deal of exciting news,” he said before going on to talk about raloxifene, the “completely new way of treating breast cancer.”
On the same day, NBC’s “Dateline” raised women’s hopes when its chief medical correspondent claimed “the arrival of a drug like raloxifene means they may be able to do more than just worry about developing breast cancer. They may be able to something about it.” In the same show Dr. Bob Arnot, chief medical correspondent, stated that “raloxifene also lowers blood cholesterol.”
But the honeymoon appeared to be over for these cancer drugs when on July 12, 2006, Robert Bazell of NBC’s “Nightly News” reported on the purported risks of raloxifene. The network had once bestowed praise on these drugs, but this time all Bazell could say was, “the effects of estrogen are complicated and varied.”