National Cancer Institute NCI Cancer Bulletin: A Trusted Source for Cancer Research News
March 8, 2011 • Volume 8 / Number 5

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Guest Commentary by Drs. Galen Cole, Barbara Powe, and Brad Hesse

This is the sixth article in a series of stories related to cancer communications. You can read more articles in the series here.

Reenergizing the Agenda for Cancer Communication

Drs. Galen Cole, Barbara Powe, and Brad Hesse Drs. Galen Cole of the CDC, Barbara Powe of the American Cancer Society, and Brad Hesse of NCI.

“All we have to do is mention Egypt,” said a presenter at a recent conference on cancer communication, “and everyone knows that we have reached an inflection point in the communication environment.” What the speaker was describing, of course, was the historic revolution that ousted the 30-year Mubarak regime in Egypt.

Facilitated largely by social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, these recent political events are being referred to by some as the “Facebook Revolution,” and they illustrate the massively influential ways in which participative media can be used to mobilize social forces. Now, the question for the National Cancer Program is how to take advantage of new communication platforms to make similarly historic progress against the burden of cancer.

To address such issues, the American Cancer Society (ACS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and NCI convened a state-of-the-science-and-practice meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, on February 14 and 15. True to its theme, the meeting was opened to the public through a live video feed and invited discussions through Twitter and by e-mail. (View the archived video feed on the meeting Web site.)

Scientific leaders from our organizations participated in the event. The meeting was also attended by leading scholars in cancer communication science and leading practitioners of cancer-related communication activity. Some of these experts participated in a panel and shared their synopses of the most substantial research in this field during the last decade, as well as where the translation of this research into practice could take us in the decade to come.

To be sure, communication science and practice have already produced a strong influence on national cancer control objectives. Public health efforts aimed at reducing addiction to tobacco products and at eliminating exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke have spurred some of the most notable reductions in age-adjusted deaths from cancer observed over the past century.

Similarly, efforts to disseminate early detection techniques through clinical practice and to encourage public acceptance of screening tests through mass media have led to substantial decreases in mortality from cervical, breast, and colorectal cancers. After television celebrity Katie Couric underwent a televised colonoscopy, for example, there was a noticeable bump in the public’s use of colorectal cancer screening tests. Epidemiologists subsequently referred to this phenomenon as the “Katie Couric effect.”

The Internet is enabling a new kind of communication environment in which citizens and governments, and patients and physicians, are becoming engaged in “co-creating” health through participative media. At our meeting, we discussed how this promise of co-created health can be catalyzed by Congressional efforts, including provisions of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act of 2009.

The promise can also be achieved by using advances in communication science to improve the diffusion of evidence-based practices into clinical and public use. Small advances in communication practice could “bend the curve” and reduce costs and save the lives of people who have been affected by cancer. To help make these advances, we are developing a report that outlines what was discussed at the conference last month, as well as the action plan that our three organizations will follow to establish priorities and coordinate our efforts going forward.

We cannot forget, however, that, even with the phenomenal reach of technology, human touch and face-to-face communication will always play a crucial role in effectively communicating information that ultimately improves people’s health. This is particularly true for those who are still separated by a digital divide.

Dr. Bradford Hesse 
Chief of the Health Communication and Informatics Research Branch
NCI’s Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences

Dr. Barbara Powe 
Director of Cancer Communication Science
American Cancer Society

Dr. Galen Cole
Associate Director for Communication Science
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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