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Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Navratilova's cancer: why the media failed to score

The announcement this week that legendary tennis champion Martina Navratilova is undergoing treatment for breast cancer has made headlines in practically every newspaper and website.

On checking the front pages of the national newspapers and web-based reportage yesterday I couldn't help noticing almost all of them used cliched words such as "battle", "struggle", "suffer". This is exactly the kind of vocabulary my sub-editing tutor advised us not to use, as they risk portraying a disease as something more dreadful than it may actually be.

Yet this is how some of the nationals headlined the story on 8th April:


Headings scream

The Daily Express: Martina fights breast cancer




The Daily Mail: Martina's breast cancer battle



The Daily Telegrpah: "I will win cancer fight, says Martina."



The Indie: Navratilova's new battle

It is easy for a story to end up magnified in the media when it is linked to a famous person, such as Martina Navratilova.  But looking at some of the more sensationalist headlines made me question what the best and correct way of reporting the story of someone's serious disease might be. 

Red lipstick gone wrong

At at time when newspapers struggle with a falling readership, 'bigging up' a story to make it more saleable might even fall within the forgivable remit of a sub-editor's stylistic licence. But an Antipodean news website had the bad taste of calling Navratilova a "cancer victim", even when prognostics of a complete cure for her early-stage, not invasive ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), confined to the milk ducts, has been reported to be "excellent". 

Do journalists really think all cancer patients consider themselves to be cancer victims? It concerns me that language better suited to obituaries end up being used in headings to announce someone is merely ill.


As a loyal Guardian reader, I felt proud that its subs had chosen the heading" 'My 9/11' Navratilova's cancer" – understated and to-the-point, yet still emotive, with Navratilova's quote providing just enough dramatic impact.

The Guardian: Navratilova's cancer


Headlines and captions must grab the attention of the reader, of course, but try too hard and it turns into that dangerously bright red lipstick that makes a woman look more like a hooker than a sex goddess.

Tragedy vs. tragic words
Examples of headlines that scream tragedy and scandal at the reader abound in our papers. I happened to pay particular attention to Navratilova's cancer news because a) I have experience of breast cancer myself, b) I have always admired the tennis champion. 

Navratilova says she cried on receiving her diagnosis. Who wouldn't? The calmest, most self-controlled people in the world lose their cool when the C-word comes out of the doctor's mouth. I too cried, and how. In the consultant's room, I felt the ground beneath me crack open, and, in an instant, I was falling head first into a dark abyss. 

But Navratilova's cancer, like mine, was caught early enough that a lumpectomy (as opposed to a mastectomy) and a few weeks of radiotherapy with no chemo will suffice to guarantee high chances of cure and non-recurrence. 

Cancer is a painful personal tragedy to be dealt with. But depending on how you see it, it can also bring fantastic positive changes and insightful discoveries into your life you would never have come across otherwise. 

While it is not untrue to say a cancer patient does have a fight, or battle, to win against a deadly enemy, I believe the only ones with the right to say they are "suffering" are the patients themselves. 

Suffering is a relative, abstract sentiment. What a reporter might describe as someone's "suffering" might be perceived by the "sufferer" as a mere challenge, akin to for instance, running a marathon.

Isn't labelling someone a "victim" tantamount to admitting their defeat, when they might be winning from the start?

The woman who is thrown out of the vehicle, which crashed into another, and is splayed on the pavement like a roadkill, hemorrhaging from her wounds, is a victim. A woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and is almost certainly going to be cured of it after surgery and some radiation treatment, is  the lucky driver in the car ahead, who missed the collision by seconds. 

Awareness, not fear
Talking to ABC News in the USA, Navratilova says she had not wanted to come public about her cancer but she realised doing so could help raise awareness to the importance of having regular mammograms. 

I do not believe it was ever her intention to solicit our sympathy or commiseration for her personal plight. The message was not that cancer is trying to kill a tennis legend and may be coming to get you next.  The lesson to be learned was that through simple preventative measures, such as self-checks and mammograms,  a rottweiler of a disease can be tamed into an annoying but much less frightening yappy dog.

Listen to her interview till the end. Notice how her fighting spirit underlies every single aspect of her life, including her "battle" with cancer. Notice how she refuses to be a "victim"or show any overt signs of suffering, despite admitting to emotional turmoil. A winner through and through.

Martina vs Media: 40-love

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