Objectives: To determine the degree to which women with early breast cancer understand the prognostic information communicated by clinicians after breast cancer diagnosis, and their preferences for how this information is presented.
Design: Cross-sectional survey conducted within two months of breast cancer diagnosis, using a self-administered written questionnaire.
Participants and setting: One hundred women attending five Sydney teaching hospitals and one country hospital, who were diagnosed with early stage breast cancer between January and December 1997.
Results: The 100 respondents represented 70% of the 143 women originally approached to participate. Many respondents did not fully understand the language typically used by surgeons and cancer specialists to describe prognosis: 53% could not calculate risk reduction (with adjuvant therapy) relative to absolute risk; 73% did not understand the term "median" survival; and 33% believed a cancer specialist could predict an individual patient's outcome. Women in professional/paraprofessional occupations understood more prognostic information than nonprofessional women. There was no agreement on the descriptive equivalent of a "30%" risk, nor the numerical interpretation of a "good" chance of survival. Forty-three per cent of women preferred positively framed messages (e.g., "chance of cure"), and 33% negatively framed messages (e.g., "chance of relapse"). The information women most wanted was that relating to probability of cure, staging of their cancer, chances of treatment being successful, and 10-year survival figures with and without adjuvant therapy.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that misunderstanding is responsible for women's confusion about breast cancer prognosis. Clinicians should use a variety of techniques to communicate prognosis and risk, and need to verify that the information has been understood.