Lessons Learned from Study Coverage in the News
One of the best learned skills for cancer patients, as well as the general health news-consuming public, is knowing how to evaluate what we are reading, whether online or in print, and determining how it translates to our lives, if at all. Last week, the New York Times, reported on a study that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The study was called “Effect of a Behavioral Intervention to Increase Vegetable Consumption on Cancer Progression Among Men With Early-Stage Prostate Cancer: The MEAL Randomized Clinical Trial.”
This study coverage can serve as a roadmap for honing fact-finding and myth-minding skills and applying to other articles going forward. Typically, you will find information within the body of the article to decode both 1) what the study means; and 2) what it means to you. Here are some questions to ask…
- Who is the source? In this case, both JAMA and the New York Times are reputable sources for scientific and mainstream information, respectively.
- Is this an area of study that is well-established or is it still new? Lifestyle and nutrition factors in cancer development and treatment, overall, is an area still evolving. Additionally, there are some cancers that have been studied more rigorously than others. Regardless, there is still much more to learn. Therefore, it’s very unlikely that this study is going to be the final word in whether vegetables hinder the progression of prostate cancer. Interested in what buzzwords that denote research that is further along? Look for words like “meta-analysis”, “evidence-based review”, and “consensus statement.”
- Do the findings make sense intuitively? Always consider whether this is one study or whether it is building on an existing body of evidence. Individual study findings are interesting for headlines, but they are just one piece when we are looking at population- and individual-based recommendations. Consider whether the results are compatible with what we know or if they seem to contradict everything we have found to date. If it’s the latter, that’s reason enough to be careful putting too much stock in the findings or recommendations.
- What are the details? Most studies are measuring something very specific and this is helpful to note. For example, this study was measuring prostate cancer progression. Therefore, the findings cannot be used to predict reduction of risk of developing prostate cancer, nor do they give any insight into preventing other types of cancer.
- Is there balance? Since no study is infallible, a responsibly written article will have balance in the form of study-specific caveats and/or context. In this case, the study author is quoted as saying, “The study doesn’t give license for folks to not eat a healthy diet,” he added. “Lots of other research in prostate and other cancers has shown that men who are more robust and healthier in general tolerate their treatment much better.”
- How, if at all, does this affect me and what I would do? For instance, if you are female, these findings won’t affect you. If you do not currently have prostate cancer, it’s also not relevant. Not even if you are not a fan of vegetables!
Virginia Cancer Specialists Dietitians