Overcoming Communication Challenges in Oncology

04/01/22
by Monique LaRocque

Cancer is the word that no patient or family member ever wants to hear, and it is news that no clinician wants to deliver. Yet, it is the second leading cause of death in the United States and each year more than 1.6 million people are diagnosed with cancer and nearly 600,000 die from it.[i] In addition to the toll on life, the financial burden to the U.S. healthcare system is about $200 billion dollars, and the cost of cancer care continues to rise.[ii]

The good news is that more people are surviving cancer than ever before. There are an estimated 17 million cancer survivors alive in the United States today, and that is expected to grow to more than 22.1 million by 2030.[iii] Effective communication plays an essential role in survivorship and promoting healthy outcomes for oncology patients, and is needed to support early detection, treatment, and care planning before and after treatment.[iv]

To help overcome these challenges, effective oncology marketing should focus on increasing awareness about prevention, as well as the clinical trials and treatment options currently available.

Several challenges to communication in oncology care exist. According to recent studies, patients may be reluctant to ask important questions about their disease and care, unless directly invited to do so.[v] In addition, some limited studies on the differences in culture and race reflect a positive or disparate impact on the interaction among patients and their healthcare practitioners, demonstrating the need for greater cultural competency.[vi] In their quest for more information, patients may seek online sources where there is a crowded array of both reputable and non-authenticated information. In addition, the number of therapeutic-focused communications have increased dramatically from the early 2000s when direct-to-consumer marketing in oncology was largely nonexistent, adding further to the information patients will be exposed to as they seek to make sense of their diagnosis and review treatment options.

To help overcome these challenges, effective oncology marketing should focus on increasing awareness about prevention, as well as the clinical trials and treatment options currently available. These communications should also drive awareness on emerging therapies and engaging with influential intermediaries who will help patients make difficult decisions about their care, including healthcare professionals and caregivers. Some suggestions for oncology marketers:

  • Leverage the work of stakeholder organizations to amplify the support needed for patients and doctors to provide effective communication tools. This can help healthcare professionals, caregivers, and patients engage with more preventative measures for early detection and to aid in the development of a care cancer plan that can greatly improve a patient’s experience, survival, and overall health outcomes. A new diagnosis can be traumatic, and patients have to navigate learning a new cancer care language, while also managing some of the most important sets of decisions in their lives. No patient should feel like they have to start from ground zero when trying to navigate the cancer care system. The American Cancer Society has a survivorship app and the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship has a Cancer Care Toolbox, both resources can aid patients and their caregivers to navigate what can often be a very difficult time in their lives. Resources that help patients ask concrete questions, take home information to help them process their next steps, and choose a treatment plan, will help reduce anxiety and outline a clear path forward.
  • Consider cultural competency training and develop materials that demonstrate diversity and inclusion in cancer marketing, clinical trials, and educational materials. Mortality rates are higher among African Americans with prostate and breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute Communication in Cancer Care PDQ® notes distinct healthcare disparities in Latina patients with breast cancer who are older in age. These patients were less likely to receive interactive informational support from their doctors than younger patients who present with the same disease.[vii] In addition, therapeutic clinical trials are less likely to have included racial and ethnic minorities, which can have an impact on the understanding of how a therapeutic treatment would work in some populations. Moving toward more inclusive communications and authentic engagement that helps facilitate trust can help spur better detection, clinical trial participation, and uptake on important treatment plans.
  • Design integrated oncology communication approaches to engage patients across the spectrum of patient populations. Cancer communication must go to where the people are, where they live, work, and play and to networks and influencers they trust. Traditional ways to engage, online streaming content integration, social influencer engagement, and education on a wide variety of digital platforms can help to reach new audiences through compelling story telling by patients, as well as healthcare professionals. As oncologists are becoming even more technologically savvy, they are taking to social media to share their knowledge and garnering large followings. Real people are sharing their personal journeys and helping other patients find their way, which can lead to greater communication opportunities to help patients. Oncology professionals and marketers can help guide the way to accurate information, while also connecting patients and caregivers to resources so they don’t feel alone in the process, while leveraging the experience and expertise of others who have survived the system and their diagnosis.

Oncology communications show promise in helping to address challenges and disparities in cancer care and can help improve health outcomes for patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals when effectively leveraged. Our nation’s healthcare system and the families affected by cancer deserve innovation in oncology communications to help get the right treatment or intervention to the right patient at the right time. Life depends on it.  


[i] Murphy, S. L. (2021). Mortality in the United States, 2020. NCHS Data Brief (No. 427). National Center for Health Statistics. https://doi.org/10.15620/cdc:112079

[ii] National Cancer Institute. (2021). Financial burden of cancer care. Cancer Trends Progress Report – Financial Burden of Cancer Care. Retrieved March 21, 2022. https://progressreport.cancer.gov/after/economic_burden

[iii] Miller, K., Rowland, J. H., Mariotto, A., & Nogueira, L. (2019, June 11). Cancer Treatment and Survivorship Statistics. Cancer treatment and survivorship statistics. Retrieved March 21, 2022. Accessed March 21, 2022. https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3322/caac.21565

[iv] PDQ® Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board. PDQ Communication in Cancer Care. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Accessed March 14, 2022. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/adjusting-to-cancer/communication-hp-pdq

[v] Ibid

[vi] Saltus, R. (2019, November 1). Study finds racial disparities in culturally competent cancer care. Racial disparities found in culturally competent cancer care. Retrieved March 21, 2022. Accessed March 21, 2022. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/11/studyfinds-racial-disparities-in-culturally-competent-cancer-care/

[vii] PDQ® Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board. PDQ Communication in Cancer Care. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Accessed March 21, 2022. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/adjusting-to-cancer/communication-hp-pdq