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Covering Cancer Disparities: Tips for Reporters from a Leading Researcher

Covering Cancer Disparities: Tips for Reporters from a Leading Researcher

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ReportingonHealth's TalkBack blog recently highlighted media coverage of a new study showing a striking difference in survival rates between blacks and whites with a certain type of throat cancer.

Moon Chen, a nationally-known University of California-Davis cancer researcher who specializes in Asian health and ethnic and racial disparities, was kind enough to share his thoughts about studies like these and how journalists can best cover them.

Because complex genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors are at play, writing accurately about these studies can be a real challenge, particularly on deadline. Often, you have to consider what the study you're writing about doesn't discuss to place it in the appropriate context, said Chen, a frequent speaker for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.

The New York Times story about a University of Maryland study on throat cancers reported that the study's findings "may help explain the racial gap in cancer survival."

Researchers found that certain types of throat tumors caused by human papilloma virus (a sexually-transmitted virus) were more likely to respond well to treatment than similar tumors not caused by HPV. They also found that whites were far more likely than blacks to have throat tumors caused by HPV, suggesting a possible explanation for whites' higher survival rates. The researchers controlled for better access to health care, income and other socioeconomic factors, which often are cited as reasons for blacks' lower survival rates for some cancers.

"One of the concerns all of us should have is, are the (researchers' conclusions) generalizable to other cancers?" Chen said. "The research approach that was taken was very narrow in trying to answer the question of what's the influence of race. These studies are difficult to conduct."

Chen took a more limited view of the study's importance than the New York Times did. Here are some of the reasons why:

1. The study focused on a relatively rare type of cancer.

2. The patients studied were primarily white and male, at one institution, the University of Maryland. Worth considering: would the results have been different with more women and blacks in the study? "We as researchers have to deal with what we're able to do," Chen said. "In this case they studied all the patients in their databank."

3. The researchers speculated that different sexual practices of blacks and whites might lead to differences in HPV-caused throat tumors and hence, different survival rates. But the study didn't address tobacco use or alcohol use, both known risk factors for some kinds of throat cancers, Chen said. These behavioral questions are far more difficult to pin down in a rigorous scientific manner than determining whether a throat tumor is HPV-positive or HPV-negative.

These are the kinds of questions you can raise next time you cover cancer disparities research.

"Ideally, the media coverage should be based on strength of the study itself," Chen said. "Was it a randomized, controlled trial? How rigorous were the measurements of what they were trying to evaluate? How rigorous was the design, and how credible are the data?

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