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TIME's Hyped Cover Distracts from Real Story of Cancer Research Progress

Rosenthal, Eric T.

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000429642.23697.17


Just a few days after I reported the backstory of how Time magazine's April 1 cover story on Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) by Bill Saporito was developed (see below), it became clear that the issue's cover with the blaring headline “HOW TO CURE CANCER,” and in much smaller type: “Yes, It's Now Possible—Thanks to New Cancer Dream Teams that are Delivering Better Results Faster”—had become a distraction from the content of an otherwise balanced, credible article.

On March 28, Seth Mnookin posted on his Slate blog an item with the provocative title, “The Worst Magazine Cover of the Year? Time's cover line is wrong, grandiose, and cruel” ( He went on to write that the cover line didn't even accurately reflect the contents of the 4,000-word article it touted. That post was then followed by a flurry of tweets commenting negatively about Time's word choice on its cover.

Mnookin also quoted Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which has been optioned by SU2C for a future multipart television documentary.

“Historically someone then comes and says, ‘Didn't you promise this then and aren't we now being duped?’ It creates a cycle of problems down the road,” said Mukherjee, according to Mnookin, who then wrote: “Instead of jump-starting a conversation about the most effective approach to cancer research, Time distorted it beyond recognition. It's certainly not the first time that's happened.”

Mnookin then adds the Time cover to the infamous litany of false-hope hyped stories and promises about cancer cures in the past including: President Nixon's “War on Cancer” in 1971; the New York Times' front page story by Gina Kolata in 1998 quoting James Watson as saying that Judah Folkman would “cure cancer in two years”; and former NCI Director Andrew von Eschenbach's 2003 claim that suffering and death from cancer would be eliminated by 2015—Mnookin calls that a “risible boast.”

Now, don't get me wrong, I also think that Time's marketing sense trumped its sense of accuracy and good journalism with its choice of using “cure” in its headline.

And I can say that in nearly five years of covering SU2C I never heard one of its cofounders refer to “cure” in its mission, but I do hope that the public will pay less attention to the cover's sizzle and more to the content within.

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The article, with the headline inside of “The Conspiracy to End Cancer,” featured the SU2C funding model of multidisciplinary, multi-institutional translational research dream teams given a finite three years to translate their findings into a treatment or insight that would benefit patients.

Since I have been covering SU2C since the initiative's inception in 2008, I was curious about why the mainstream media chose this particular time to focus on the topic.

I spoke via telephone with Saporito, a Time Assistant Managing Editor who directs the magazine's coverage of business, the economy, personal finance, and sports, and who previously wrote a cover story related to Stand Up in September 2008, “He Won His Battle With Cancer,” about Lance Armstrong.

Saporito, a five-year esophageal cancer survivor in 2008, said he initially approached the topic back then because he had read that cancer was nearing the dubious distinction of overtaking heart disease as the number one killer of Americans and that progress in cancer research seemed to be slow.

Fast forward to 2012, and Time was approached about covering SU2C's then-upcoming September fundraising and awareness multi-network telecast, and at about the same time Saporito heard about MD Anderson Cancer Center's “Moon Shots” initiative that also involved team research looking into lung, prostate, melanoma, breast, and ovarian cancers and three types of leukemia.

Saporito said the issue began to come together at that point, but he admitted that when an editor initially asked him about looking into the telecast he wasn't interested at first because he considered it to be strictly “an event” and not necessarily news.

So he instead asked the question: “Is this research model working?”

“And,” he said,” the point is that it is working, and one can point to the evidence that says yes, and now it seems that the National Institutes of Health and [institutions such as] MD Anderson are changing [and adopting similar models].

ABC-TV journalist and SU2C cofounder Katie Couric, who is also an active colorectal cancer advocate, said that didn't think the public was getting enough information about Stand Up's accomplishments and so contacted a senior editor at Time about the Sept. telecast since she thought Time could look at the big picture: “It didn't happen during the TV telecast, but I'm really grateful that they pursued it…and I'm thrilled because I really believe some of the unsung heroes of our country are cancer scientists trying to unlock the secrets of the disease,” she said.

© 2013 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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