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‘Cancer doesn’t care’: The painful side of feel-good health care marketing

Lori Wallace sits on a couch with her 11-year-old son and his new pet snake. It burrows under his armpit, as if afraid. Wallace is sure it’s not.

“If he was terrified, he would be balled up,” Wallace said. “See, that is why they are called ball pythons. When they are scared, they turn into a little ball.”

Wallace is dying of breast cancer, but a stranger wouldn’t know. She has a pixie haircut and a warm tan. She is vibrant and chatty and looks you right in the eyes when she talks. Wallace doesn’t shy away from what is happening to her. She shows me her cracked feet. They bleed from the chemotherapy pills she takes.

As Wallace’s cancer has progressed over the past seven years, she has become more critical of what she sees as excessive positivity in health care marketing. It’s everywhere: TV ads, radio commercials, billboards. The advertisements feature happy, healed patients and tell stories of miraculous recoveries. The messages are optimistic, about people beating steep odds. The ads spread false hope, Wallace said, and for a patient like her, they are a slap in the face.