Tailoring the Cancer Research Message for the ‘Average Joe’

By Jane Kollmer, Director for Communications, University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center

Educating the general public about the latest cancer research findings is an important part of a cancer center’s mission.

After all, the more people understand about cancer, the more they can take steps to prevent it and get screened for it. At our cancer centers, we are sitting on a wealth of knowledge that could make a difference in people’s lives.

Although many of our scientists and physicians are brilliant minds, most struggle to explain medical and scientific concepts in a way that an “average Joe” could understand.

Findings from ASCO’s National Cancer Opinion Survey highlight the communication gap:

  • Only one in four adults report caring deeply about cancer prevention and incorporating risk reduction strategies into their daily lives.
  • Americans are more likely to get information about cancer prevention online than from their doctors.
  • Two-thirds of Americans are unsure about which sources to trust for information on what causes cancer.
  • There are many misconceptions among adults about what causes cancer, and only a minority are aware of lifestyle factors that increase their risk.

This year, I was on a mission to improve the way we reach the general public. My plan was to create an infographic on screening guidelines and risk factors for cancer that was easy to digest for the average person.  Download Infographic

Through the process, I learned a lot of lessons, including:

  • Think about the purpose and its intended use. Try to create something that will have a long shelf life.
  • Get input from cancer experts for accuracy, but don’t be afraid to revise for clarity.
  • Include enough details to make the information useful without getting stuck “in the weeds.”
  • Remain within the branding guidelines set forth by your organization as building brand awareness is important.
  • Have a catchy heading to capture reader interest. Make it actionable and colorful.
  • Leave enough white space on the page to be esthetically pleasing.
  • Consider a larger font size to accommodate older, visually impaired readers.
  • Consult with a health literacy team.
  • Use glossaries of cancer terms produced by many organizations, such as AACR, ACS and NCI.
  • Carefully consider an effective call-to-action, whether it be to make an appointment, find a physician or clinical trial, or seek a second opinion.
  • Don’t forget to notify the call center about the possible influx of calls and ensure the number listed is correct.
  • Disseminate the information in as many ways as possible, through social media channels, as a leave-behind at conferences and community events, in clinical spaces, etc.
  • To reach non-English-speaking communities, translate the information into other languages and make sure the materials are culturally competent.

We know that knowledge is power. By ensuring our messages are understandable to the common person, we can empower the general public to take charge of their health. The Latin motto of the University of Chicago is “Crescat scientia; vita excolatur” – which means, “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.” If we make people’s lives better, we are doing our jobs right.

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