Every day (or so it seems), there is a report about new scientific findings that will cure or prevent cancer (or another illness). It's all too easy to get your hopes up, so it's important to understand how to evaluate studies.

According to the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), scientific studies provide clues to deciphering the mysteries of cancer. But there are many types of studies and each has strengths and weaknesses.

Studies conducted in a lab, rather than with people, are very preliminary; don't expect them to translate into clinical practice in the near future.

Observational and epidemiological studies can be useful as a starting point, but extrapolating results is premature.

While it's not perfect, the randomized, double blind, controlled trial is considered the scientific gold standard.

The experts at HealthNewsReview.org, which reviews media coverage of healthcare stories, offers these tips for evaluating health-related stories:

  • Be skeptical of results that are based on a single study.
  • If a new drug may, could, or should be approved by the FDA, don't put too much stock in the prediction. The medication may never be approved or available.
  • Observational studies cannot provide evidence of cause and effect, only evidence of some relationship between exposure to something (e.g. a drug) and outcome. A stronger study design should explore the association in more depth. Until then, any link between cause and effect in observational studies is purely speculative.
  • Consumers should be aware when they see these words in a health story: cure, miracle, breakthrough, promising, dramatic, hope, or victim.

The Cancer and Food Connection

One area of cancer research the media frequently covers is the association between food and cancer risks or benefits. Several researchers evaluated 35 years of studies involving a random collection of foods that claimed risks or benefits. They concluded, "There is strong evidence, and pretty strong expectations, that some nutrients in some foods would be related to cancer risk—either protective or increased risk—but it's very hard to believe that almost anything would be associated with cancer."

Gary Schwitzer, publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, says in order to become a well-informed consumer, "we must be willing to accept the limitations of science and be open to shared decision-making that recognizes that there are tradeoffs in any decision made in this uncertain and unpredictable place we call reality."

By keeping up with research on your type of cancer, you will become an informed—but rightfully skeptical—patient and healthcare consumer. Talk to your physician about study results that might affect you.

Liesa Harte, MD, reviewed this article.




Pittman, Genevra. "Treat nutrition and cancer research cautiously: study." Reuter's Health. Web. 5 December 2012.http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/05/us-nutrition-cancer-idUSBRE8B41EA20121205

American Institute for Cancer Research. "The Expert Report." Web.   http://www.aicr.org/research/research_science_expert_report.html

American Institute for Cancer Research. "Studying Cancer: Learn how scientists research diet and cancer." Web. http://www.aicr.org/research/research_inform_studying_cancer.html

HealthNewsReview.org. "Tips for Understanding Studies." Web. http://www.healthnewsreview.org/toolkit/tips-for-understanding-studies/

Bottles, Kent, MD. "The Difficult Science Behind Becoming a Savvy Healthcare Consumer, Part I." Blog. Web. 24 December 2010. http://kentbottles.blogspot.com/2010/12/difficult-science-behind-becoming-savvy.html