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Refining our stories about cancer

pay-1036470_1920Fifty percent of all deaths from cancer in the United States may be preventable, according to the American Association for Cancer Research. Yet, little cancer research funding from the federal government is targeted to prevention research, with the lion’s share going to research on cancer treatment. Why have we not been able to make a better case to the public in support of prevention research? It may be that we are not great storytellers.

The research in my organization, the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, is done by epidemiologists. These scientists conduct research on cancer risk factors: why some people are affected by this disease while others are not, especially with consideration to geographic, occupational, health care and racial/ethnic factors. One technique they use is to mine large patient databases, like the Greater Bay Area Cancer Registry, which contains over 1 million records on individual cancer cases. Through journal articles and media stories, research findings based on these data are made available to health care professionals, policy makers and the general public.

When it comes to communicating effectively with the general public, I’ve come to realize the importance of how we communicate our findings.

Master fundraisers advise conveying a simple, emotionally compelling message. If a message focuses on the plight of an individual rather than on a group, the story is likely to have even greater impact. People have a difficult time visualizing large numbers. Rather than saying nearly 1.7 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year and about 600,000 will die from the disease, we need make these statistics more personal and meaningful: “On average, one in two of us will develop cancer in our lifetime.”

How we tell our stories does impact subsequent behavior. A study conducted by Deborah Small, PhD, a psychologist and marketing researcher, and colleagues at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that a story about a single person can evoke a “spontaneous affective response” and result in more donations than a story on a larger number of unnamed victims. A case in point is the picture of the three-year-old Syrian boy’s body being washed up on a Turkish shore. That one image galvanized more public attention than all of the stories about the millions of displaced refugees. As Small concluded, “It’s hard for humans to generate feelings about statistics.”

Statistics, though, are the common language in cancer prevention research, so there is a lesson here for all of us who deal with large population data. While we conduct rigorous scientific research, provide insightful analyses and offer significant public policy implications, we need to find better ways of connecting with the general public. We need to find, capture and tell stories of specific individuals who directly benefit from our work and, in so doing, make these individuals come alive.

Donna Randall, PhD, is chief executive officer of the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, a partner of the Stanford Cancer Institute.

Image by geralt

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