Silent and deadly? A challenge to the popular portrayal of ovarian cancer

Nurses should deconstruct inaccurate and sensationalist presentations of cancer in the media to reduce the negative effect on patients’ well-being, argues Meridith Burles

Nurses should deconstruct inaccurate and sensationalist presentations of cancer in the media to reduce the negative effect on patients’ well-being, argues Meridith Burles.

The media can often influence patients' understanding of health and illness
Picture: iStock

Today, mass media is almost unescapable, with some considering it the backdrop to our lives (Seale 2002) because it has such a profound influence. The far-reaching effects include shaping the sociocultural understanding of what it means to be healthy or ill.

Health and illness can be considered constructions produced through the media and other institutions such as biomedicine. While people have the power to accept or resist the concepts that are presented to them, dominant constructs often overpower individual understanding of risk and illness. If we accept this, we must then consider the messages transmitted by popular media and their implications.

Media portrayal

I wanted to find out more about this topic and how ovarian cancer is portrayed in popular women’s magazines. I chose this cancer because of the limited awareness of it and the widespread misconceptions about detection and prognosis among women and many healthcare providers (Lockwood-Rayermann et al 2009, Goldstein et al 2015). I examined 62 articles about ovarian cancer from eight popular magazines sold in Canada over an 18-year period to identify common ideas across the data and to interpret the implications.

My analysis revealed diverse, often contradictory, presentations of ovarian cancer that raised various concerns. To start with, this cancer was framed in terms of personal responsibility, with emphasis on prevention or management through a healthy lifestyle. Additionally, ovarian cancer was depicted as mysterious and fatal, being referred to as secretive, threatening and a ‘silent killer’.

Comparing these constructs, ovarian cancer is presented as controllable through health behaviour, but also undetectable and undefeatable at the same time. Women were told that risk or prognosis can be managed through diet and exercise, but also that ovarian cancer develops unnoticed until it is at an advanced stage when survival will be unlikely.


Such inconsistencies were evident in individual articles and across the dataset, which has significant implications for women’s well-being. Focus on health behaviour can produce a false sense of security if women perceive their risk to be minimal because they maintain a healthy lifestyle. Alternatively, affected women might believe that they have somehow caused their cancer because they have had an unhealthy lifestyle.

What’s more, the emphasis on the secretive and fatal nature of ovarian cancer can generate unnecessary fear and diminish hope for survival. These media portrayals are concerning because they are inaccurate and sensationalist.

This research highlights the problematic nature of many media depictions and their potential to be detrimental to women’s well-being and their understanding of ovarian cancer.

Blame culture

Nurses are well placed to address harmful media constructs by communicating accurate information and helping to mitigate distress caused by the emphasis on incurability. Nurses can support women with feelings of blame if they believe their health behaviour contributed to cancer.

Nurses should address problematic media constructions by beginning realistic discussions of risk and prognosis and avoiding sensational language, such as the ‘silent killer’ label, when talking about ovarian cancer. Doing so can decrease stigma and fear and enhance women’s psychosocial well-being.


  • Goldstein C, Susman E, Lockwood S et al (2015) Awareness of symptoms and risk factors of ovarian cancer in a population of women and healthcare providers. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. 19, 2, 206-212.
  • Lockwood-Rayermann S, Donovan H, Rambo D et al (2009) Women’s awareness of ovarian cancer risks and symptoms. American Journal of Nursing. 109, 9, 36-45.
  • Seale C (2002) Media and Health. Sage, London.

About the author

Meridith Burles

Meridith Burles is postdoctoral fellow at College of Nursing, University of Saskatchewan, Canada

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