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By: Kaiwen Song

We are bombarded with alarming medical statistics on the daily. “One in two people in the U.K. will get cancer,” screamed a recent report from Cancer Research U.K., presenting a significant increase from the previous estimate of one in three people. “35 million people worldwide are living with AIDS,” warned AIDS.org, a total higher than ever before. Unfortunately, these statistics are usually delivered in a way that inspires fear and dismay, when they are partially good news in disguise.

The media often reports cancer as an increasing global concern, with the number of people at risk of getting cancer consistently on the rise. Similarly, the total number of people with AIDS keeps increasing with each news cycle. While these reports are technically correct, they often fail to account for one thing: people are getting cancer more often and more people are living with AIDS not because these diseases are mutating out of control or becoming more infectious, but because people are becoming healthier overall.

So how can rising levels of people with cancer and AIDS ever be a good thing? An individual’s risk for cancer increases steadily with age. In fact, more than 60 percent of all cases of cancer are diagnosed in people aged over 65. This means that more people are at risk for cancer because they are living longer than ever before, without dying from something else first. Similarly, the number of people living with AIDS worldwide is steadily increasing because they are not dying from AIDS anymore. This change is caused by improved medical care for those infected with HIV. This is why these headlines are at least partially good news. In some aspects, we should be grateful that we are living long enough to get cancer. Many people who live in developing countries, where famine and war are still common, do not live long enough for cancer to become a concern.

In a world saturated by media outlets, it’s hard to fault each one for relying on shock and fear to capture attention and stand out from the competition. However, when scientific information is conveyed in medical news, extra care should be taken in order to ensure that the statistics presented are not misconstrued. Because most people do not regularly check the latest medical journals for updates, the media is often the only channel informing the general public about the latest healthcare statistics. Therefore, the media has a responsibility to present information in a manner that educates the public effectively without causing unnecessary panic.

In articles about cancer, journalists could explain that our higher life expectancy at least partially accounts for the rise in cancer rates. In reports about AIDS, they could share that an increase in the number of people with AIDS means that fewer people are succumbing to its symptoms. In this case, the media has the power to make a decision: alarm the public due to dangers that do not exist, or inform and educate them appropriately.

The media is free to write all the shocking and distressing headlines it wants about the latest celebrity break-up or political scandal, but when reporting healthcare information, it needs make sure that the public is accurately informed, not unduly alarmed, by what is printed.

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