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Associate Professor Darren Saunders

Academic cautions basing changes to breast cancer treatment on headlines

Reports suggesting that many women with early-stage breast cancer do not require chemotherapy have spread across media outlets worldwide this week, but an Australian academic has cautioned people to beware of misleading headlines.

The headlines in question sit atop stories of a study, recently published by the New England Journal of Medicine, that suggested a significant number of women with the most common form of early-stage breast cancer can avoid chemotherapy without lowering their chances of beating the disease.

Writing in the The Conversation, Associate Professor Darren Saunders from UNSW said the reports that 70 per cent of women with breast cancer don't need chemotherapy need to be heeded with caution.

He said that the subtype studied, while substantial, is very specific.

“Cancer is complex and challenging to study, and news reporting on the disease easily lends itself to hype, contradiction and misinterpretation,” Saunders said. “Clearly communicating research findings is important for helping patients make informed decisions about treatment and modifying risk.

“Poor reporting may have serious consequences for public and scientific communities alike.”

Saunders said reports and headlines that feed on an understandable fear could potentially encourage patients to incorrectly avoid or stop treatment, with potentially tragic consequences.

“This study supports sparing thousands of women from the sometimes nasty side-effects of chemotherapy, but we must be crystal clear that it applies to a very specific (and significant) subset of women,” he said. “Patients should not make any changes to their treatment based off this study, and should always consult their doctors.”

Read the full article on The Conversation.

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