Ways of communicating to a woman that she has breast cancer

For women to wait for and receive a first diagnosis of breast cancer (primary diagnosis) is an extremely stressful experience. Studies conducted to date suggest that what a woman is told at this time has the potential to influence her sense of well being, the way she copes with the news, how much she remembers of what was discussed (her recall) and her overall level of satisfaction with the encounter.
The diagnosis of confirmed breast cancer can be delivered in a variety of ways, including face-to-face consultation, telephone consultation, written or audiovisual materials. This information can be given by a range of health professionals, such as general practitioners or specialists.

The present systematic review set out to assess the effectiveness of various methods of communicating a first diagnosis of confirmed breast cancer. The review was particularly interested in how this would impact on what the patient remembered, the satisfaction with the information received, the coping strategies used as a result of the information given and the impact of receiving the information on the patient's quality of life. The review authors made a thorough search of the medical literature looking for controlled trials in which women receiving a first diagnosis of breast cancer were randomised to the intervention group. They retrieved 23 original reports of trials for further review but ultimately no trial could be included. A number of the trials focused on communication at the first treatment consultation rather than the method of delivering the diagnosis. In an area that is ethically sensitive, the authors suggest that a review which focuses on the various methods of communication at the first consultation visit may provide useful information as to which methods are more effective and beneficial for this patient group.

Authors' conclusions: 

The review question remains unanswered as there were no randomised trials of methods of communicating a diagnosis of breast cancer to women. The authors have considered the possible reasons for the lack of research studies in this area and have considered that it is perhaps unethical to randomise women at such a vulnerable time such as waiting for a diagnosis. The design of ethically sensitive research to examine this topic needs to be explored to inform future practice. As some papers reviewed by the authors related to the first consultation visit, where treatment options are discussed, perhaps a review which focused on the methods of communication at the first consultation visit would provide more reliable evidence for the effectiveness of methods of communication and overcome the ethical dilemmas previously mentioned.

Read the full abstract...

The method of delivering a diagnosis of breast cancer to women has the potential to impact on their level of interpretation, patient recall and satisfaction.


To assess the effectiveness of different methods when used to communicate a primary diagnosis of breast cancer to women.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Breast Cancer Group Specialised Register on 7th September 2006, Cochrane Consumers and Communication Group on 27th October 2006, MEDLINE (1966 to present), CINAHL (1982 to present), EMBASE OVID (1980 to present), British Nursing Index (Jan 1984 to present), PsycInfo (1967 to present), Dissertation Abstracts International (2004 to 2006), Library and Info Science Abstracts (LISA) (1969 to present), ISI Web of Knowledge (conference abstracts) and reference lists of articles.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials of women with a histologically confirmed diagnosis of breast cancer receiving a diagnosis of primary breast cancer. Trials should have used one or more of the following methods; face-to-face consultations, written information, telephone consultation, audio or video tapes of consultation.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently assessed trials for inclusion in the review. Studies were to have been assessed using standardised data extraction and quality assessment forms.

Main results: 

The search strategies identified 2847 citations overall. A total of 30 citations appeared relevant however there were three duplicates which left 27 articles for further review. Articles reporting the same primary data accounted for 6 of the publications Brown 1997; Brown 1998; Brown 1999; Brown 2000; Hack 2000; Hack 2003 which left 23 original papers to be reviewed for inclusion. Of these, none met the inclusion criteria. Data extraction and assessment of methodological quality was therefore not possible.