Noelle Swan

Fear and Hope

Whether it is a product of American culture or an innate primal fixation, it is an undisputed fact that breasts sell newspapers. From Janet Jackson to Anna Nicole Smith, Americans prowl through magazines for a glimpse of cleavage, be it an “accidental” exposure or a flagrant flaunting. Threats to those treasured mammary glands are no exception. Breast cancer is one of the widely publicized threats to women’s health. The disease has already touched the majority of Americans, if not in our own bodies then in those of our mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends. This heightened awareness has helped fuel valuable funding for research and development of prevention, detection and treatment of the disease by maintaining a level of fear amongst the nation’s women and the men who love them.

When I first came across Katherine Hobson’s article “Density Danger” on the correlation between breast density and cancer, I was sitting in my doctor’s waiting room. As I leafed through US News and World Report, I felt an imperative to read this article. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain, it seemed possible that it could hold information that would someday save my life. My stomach lurched as I read Pam Schmid’s story of a belated diagnosis and I immediately thought of my family friend currently undergoing intensive chemotherapy for breast cancer. Could there have been a way to detect and treat her cancer earlier? Would earlier treatment have been easier for her to endure? I could feel the taste of fear creeping into my gut as I read on. The sources sited throughout the body of the article sounded highly credible, mainly drawn from the actual researchers performing the studies discussed. I began to trust in the diagnostic procedures and the medical professionals that perform them. By the end of the article, that feeling in my gut was replaced by hope that further advancements will continue to be made. I finished the article feeling as if I had been dragged on an emotional roller coaster.

When approaching a story on breast cancer, journalists have several angles from which to choose. Hobson attempts to blend several angles into story. The headline chosen to accompany her piece appeals to the reader’s fears around the issue of breast cancer, as does the highlighted passage “women with dense breasts have a greater likelihood of cancer“. Both of these are designed to compel us to keep reading by striking a note of fear. Hobson further hooks the reader through the human interest story of Pam Schmid, a recovering cancer patient that experienced a belated diagnosis due to the density of her breasts. Schmid’s experiences not only inform the story but also provide personification of the risks to be explored later in the article. At this point, the article could have continued in this vein of fear and begun to quote mortality statistics and other frightening facts. Hobson however, takes a different route.

The only statistics sited in Hobson’s article are those specifically pertinent to the issue of breast density. That is not to say that she did not favor the more staggering of those statistics. The second paragraph features the relative risk of a five-fold increase in risk for women with dense tissue making up 75 percent of their breast. The actual risk of 2.5 to 5 percent of 50-year-old women is relegated to the sixth paragraph. The fact that such tempering statistics are included in the article at all demonstrates that Hobson made a conscious decision not to unnecessarily perpetuate fear. Indeed, she specifically states, “there is no need to panic.”

In efforts to balance the fear-laden aspects of the story with practical information, Hobson discusses the additional diagnostic testing capabilities of ultrasound and digital mammograms. She raises the logistical concern of financial constraints, though she does not touch on any possibility of risks involved with the testing. By providing specific questions for women to ask of their doctors and radiologists, readers are left feeling empowered as well as more likely to read Hobson’s future articles for important health information.

Hobson’s conclusion further lifts the readers’ spirits with a dose of hope. She ends her piece with a quote from a density researcher in London, “’assuming that it is possible to lower risk by lowering density,’ getting women with 50 percent density down to 15 percent ‘could eliminate a third of breast cancer.‘” This quote provides readers with the sense that while new research may be scary and daunting, it often holds potentials for better prevention. The tone of this conclusion tempers the fear-laden headline that was designed to hook us into the story. The employment of these two distinct tones serves as a tool for Hobson to provide relatively dry factual information in an emotionally stimulating way. That roller coaster ride that I took while sitting in my doctor’s waiting room was not accidental but the journalistic design of fear and hope in a fact sandwich.

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