Medical Writing Medical Writing in Oncology Oncology and medical writers

Volume 21, Issue 1 - Medical Writing in Oncology

Oncology and medical writers

Let me start this first editorial in an old journal with a new name by explaining why a medical writing journal has a theme issue on oncology and includes articles that are not directly related to writing. Medical writers write about research that is aimed at preventing, diagnosing or treating a medical disorder. They might receive an assignment that involves a disorder they know little about and need to gain an understanding of the literature on the disorder and its treatment in a very short time to meet a deadline. Quite apart from this, flexibility, curiosity, and a zeal for learning are typical characteristics of medical writers. The fund of articles in this issue cover the gamut from the nature of cancer, its current and developing therapies, management of the disease, educating healthcare workers about treatment, and communicating with patients – to tips for writing clinical trial reports.

The first known written account of the disease was a description of breast cancer in the Egyptian ‘Edwin Smith’ papyrus from 3000 BC. The cut surface of a solid malignant tumour with veins stretched on all sides is like a crab with its feet on all sides of the body, hence the name ‘cancer’ which comes from the Greek word carcinos, meaning crab.1 The vocabulary we use for cancer is loaded with metaphors, mostly taken from military quarters. We are ‘at war’ with and ‘fight’ cancer, which reflects its devastating effects and urgent need of treatment. The military metaphors also help to rationalize the radical treatments required.

Cancer encompasses many diseases and has a reputation for being a complex and deadly disease even though about one-third of cases are non-melanoma skin cancers, which are easily treated and usually cured, although they are excluded from cancer statistics precisely for this reason. In her article ‘The war on cancer’ (p. 8) Jo Whelan, a medical journalist, summarizes current thinking on what makes cancer cancer, the question first posed by Hanahan and Weinberg in 2000. She explains how the hallmarks of cancer that they outlined then, and added to in a 2011 update, have had a tremendous influence on scientific opinion and research although they have not been without their critics.

The symptoms of cancer are not immediately evident and few are specific, which means that when they come to light they are often confused with symptoms of other disease, leading to inappropriate treatment. Once detected, cancer is diagnosed by examination of a tissue sample by a pathologist. This work could be taken over by computers in future. In a recent report in Science Translational Medicine, Daphne Koller and colleagues describe a program (C-Path) that they have produced by scanning images of slides and survival data from 248 breast-cancer patients.2 With this information the program was able to grade the slides from other patients and predict whether the patients would survive for 5 years after treatment, a prediction that pathologists have not been able to make. The implications are profound not only for diagnosis, but also for ethics, because as the costs of cancer therapy increase and budgets become tighter more information will be available on which to base decisions as to who does and does not receive treatment.

At present, cancer is usually treated by chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery rather than with drugs. But, as Jo mentions in her article, 900 cancer drugs are currently in phase I–II development. Cannabinoids for instance are usually associated with the palliative care

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  1. Beck AH, Sangoi AR, Leung S, Marinelli RJ, Nielsen TO, Vijver MJ, West RB, Rijn MV, Koller D. Systematic analysis of breast cancer morphology uncovers stromal features associated with survival. Sci Transl Med 2011;3:108ra113.
  2. Max Parkin D, Boyd L, Darby SC, Mesher D, Sasieni P, Walker LC. The fraction of cancer attributable to lifestyle and environmental factors in the UK in 2010 with a foreword by Professor Sir Richard Peto. 2011;105(S2):Si–S81 Available from:



About the Medical Writing Journal
Oncology and medical writers
Message from the President
The war on cancer – What is the enemy, and are we winning?
Medical writing for cancer trials and submissions
Developing a treatment for ovarian cancer
The evolving landscape of medical education in oncology
Some considerations on the safety evaluation section of clinical study reports for studies with anticancer drugs
Identifying appropriate journals in which to publish original research on vaccines against human infectious diseases
New myths about English
From researcher in Europe to medical writer in India
Imaging techniques in oncology
Is cancer preventable? A literature review
A rising tide: Hospitals and social media
In the Bookstores
Journal Watch
The Webscout
Manuscript Writing
Regulatory Writing
Good Writing Practice
Out On Our Own
Translation Section


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Editoral Board


Raquel Billiones


Evguenia Alechine

Jonathan Pitt

Managing Editor

Victoria White

Associate Editors

Anuradha Alahari

Jennifer Bell

Nicole Bezuidenhout

Claire Chang

Barbara Grossman

Sarah Milner

John Plant

Sampoorna Rappaz

Amy Whereat

Section Editors

Daniela Kamir


Jennifer Bell


Nicole Bezuidenhout 

Digital Communication

Somsuvro Basu

EMWA News 

Ana Sofia Correia 

Gained in Translation

Ivana Turek

Getting Your Foot in the Door

Wendy Kingdom / Amy Whereat

Good Writing Practice

Alison McIntosh 

In the Bookstores

Maria Kołtowska-Häggström

Lingua Franca and Beyond

Maddy Dyer


Lisa Chamberlain-James

Medical Communications/Writing for Patients

Payal Bhatia

Medical Devices

Evguenia Alechine

My First Medical Writing

Anuradha Alahari

News from the EMA

Adriana Rocha


Tiziana von Bruchhausen


Clare ChangZuo Yen Lee 

Regulatory Matters

Sam Hamilton

Regulatory Public Disclosure

Claire Gudex

Teaching Medical Writing

Louisa Ludwig-Begall / Sarah Kabani

The Crofter: Sustainable Communications

Louisa Marcombes

Veterinary Writing

Editors Emeritus

Elise Langdon-Neuner

Phil Leventhal

Layout Designer

Chris Monk