Breast cancer research continues to show promising results and advances in the detection and treatment of the disease. More and more, work is being done in this area and studies provide hope to those diagnosed and living with breast cancer. With article headings boasting about new, better, and less invasive ways to treat breast cancer, it is important to understand the actual findings of the study and not get caught up in exciting headlines and summaries. In other cases, you may come across the results of a study from a news article or elsewhere online.
Below we outline what to look for and pay attention to so that you can read through published journal articles and determine the implications of the study by yourself.
- The Source
A good study is only as reliable as where it is found, and the study source is arguable one of the most important aspects of the study to look out for. If the source or journal that the research you are reading is unreliable, then the rest of the items in this blogpost are irrelevant. With so many websites, journals, and research articles on Google, it is imperative to ensure that the article and journal you are reading through is reliable and based on properly researched and reported findings.
One way to check for this to look at the journal homepage or about page to confirm that their articles are peer-reviewed. Peer-reviewed means that other researchers in their field of study read through and approved the study before it was published in the journal. Unfortunately, anyone can simply write that their journal or article was peer-reviewed so other steps to take include searching for title of the article in Google to check that other places have published or referred to the study or searching the name of the actual journal in Google to see if they have been written about and what has been written about them. However, the easiest way to ensure that the findings you are reading are trustworthy is to only read articles from proven reliable sources. Breast cancer and websites that post reliable research to get familiar with are:
- The Study Sample
When researchers conduct studies, their findings are meant to apply to a large variety of people, for example breast cancer patients in Western countries with early-stage breast cancer. This is called the study population. Since researchers cannot test and study the entire population, they test and study only the people who apply for and are eligible to participate in their study and the study results on based on the specific people who actually participated in the study. This is called the study sample and the study sample is meant to be representative of the study population. This means that in a study where the study population is breast cancer patients in Western countries with early-stage breast cancer, the sample should ideally include a variety of individuals in various Western countries with a range of breast cancer stages to be representative of the population. The study sample should not be only women in Ontario with stage I triple negative breast cancer. Information on who the findings are based on is important to understanding if the results are applicable to your situation. Important aspects of the study population and sample include the following:
- During clinical trials, breast cancer drugs can be tested on both animals and humans, so this is the first thing to look out for. While results from animal studies can be promising, results from human studies have much higher real-life application as what is found in mice, for example, may not translate to or be found in humans.
- Since they are multiple stages, types, and subtypes of breast cancer, the next thing to look out for is the specific breast cancer patients that were included in the study. Sometimes the study population that the sample should be representative of is large, such as early-stage breast cancer patients, while others focus on a very specific population, such as post-menopausal women with late-stage breast cancer. The study sample can help you identify if you belong to the population that the findings may apply to.
- Another important aspect of the study sample to note is the number of participants. A study with over 10,000 participants may have wider and better implications than a study with just 25 participants. Of course, this is relevant to the study population and what the study is looking at. A study looking at the overall survival rate of chemotherapy among breast cancer patients would benefit from a larger sample than a study looking at the overall survival rate of breast cancer patients with stage IV triple positive breast cancer who received a very specific 3rd line setting treatment regime.
The number of the sample is also very essential to pay attention to in studies that compare two or more groups to each other. Findings from a study that compares 3 groups with around 500 women in each might prove more reliable than a study that compares 2 groups with 30 women in group A and 5,000 women in group B.
- The Findings
The abstract section of journal articles discusses the main takeaway message and study results in a brief and concise manner. However, since there is limited space for this, the findings are summarized and therefore does not go into the details and nuances of the study results. Because of this, reading through the results or findings section is very important. If you find this section too dense to understand and get through, you can also read through the discussion section. In this section the raw data is repeated while the researchers explain and interpret the meaning of the findings in more understandable language.
Doing this is important to break down the actual findings, especially if the results were true in a very specific context. Perhaps the abstract stated that chemotherapy was most effective in post-menopausal women in their study. Reading through the results/findings or discussion section may further detail that this finding was specific to 65% of post-menopausal women in the study with a specific tumor size. Although you most likely would not expect the abstract to be completely misleading and for the findings in the discussion section to be completely different from it, it’s still useful to have a look at the actual findings.
- The Location and Time
This applies less to studies based on breast cancer drugs and may be more important in the case where the study is dependent on where the participants live. Fox example, although a study on the rates of maintaining follow-up care among low-income breast cancer patients in Greece might be interesting, the findings may be less replicable to patients in Canada. This is because the standard of follow-up care and who counts as low-income in both countries may be vastly different.
Relatedly, make sure to check out the year that the study was published. If the article is dated, there is a chance that the findings are no longer relevant. Outside of the time in terms of the year the study was published, another time that is important is the time spent doing the study. For studies on factors such as overall survival, progression-free survival, effectiveness of a treatment or surgery satisfaction, it is understandable to expect that the study participants were studied for a longer period or length of time. For example, if a study reports that women were satisfied with living flat, patients getting surveyed 5-years after their surgery would prove more reliable that patients surveyed 5 days after their surgery. On the other hand, if a study surveys current breast cancer patients to find out about the number of children they had before their diagnosis to test the correlation between having children and being diagnosed with breast cancer, the passage of time may not be as vital.
With so many breast cancer research findings being published and written about, it is important that patients are empowered to access the actual journal article and understand what it being discussed. While journal articles are not always accessible for free, we hope that this post can help you understand and know what to pay attention to in the cases where you can access the articles. Doing so helps you to contextualize research findings and to better understand how the results may apply to you and your situation.