A User’s Guide to Cancer-Related News

By Vish Viswanath, PhD


News about advances in cancer research and treatment appears almost daily. The pace at which new findings are reported, coupled with the complexity of the underlying science, can make it difficult to know which studies are truly significant and which are less so. It’s easy to become confused when reports seem to have varying conclusions.

Here are some tips for becoming a savvy consumer of cancer news.

  • News coverage of cancer tends to be episodic: each new study is presented in a separate newspaper, TV story, or online channel. This can obscure the fact that science is a process, and new studies are only the latest chapter in a course of discovery. As a result, the findings of a single study are not always sufficient to change the way cancer medicine is practiced. It’s important to ask whether a study is the first to make a particular finding, or whether it is confirming previous research. In general, an important finding must be reproduced by other researchers before it affects patient care.
  • SOG_2113_12Look for information about who is funding a particular study. A drug manufacturer that funds a study of one of its own products clearly has an inherent interest in the outcome. This isn’t by any means to say that studies funded by private industry always produce questionable results, but it’s worth keeping the funder’s connection to the study in mind.
  • If the report concerns a clinical research study, pay attention to how many patients were involved. In general, the more patients and the greater variety of patients who participated, the more broadly applicable the findings are.
  • If the study involves a clinical trial in which a new therapy is tested with patients, note which phase of research the trial involved. Phase 1 studies, for example, generally involve a small number of patients and are conducted primarily to see whether a potential treatment is safe and what doses are appropriate. Phase 3 trials, by contrast, involve treatments that are closer to becoming approved.

In his lab, Dr. Viswanath studies the role of communication in health promotion, with a focus on communication inequities and health disparities.