Based on the nature and topics of the information sought by cancer patients, their information needs appear to differ depending on the type of cancer they have and where they are in their survivorship. Clinicians caring for cancer survivors may need to understand these needs in order to better address survivors’ concerns about cancer recurrence, late effects, and family members’ risks. These findings were reported in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention (2015; doi:10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-15-0041).

A 3-year study of more than 2,000 cancer survivors by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication in Philadelphia discovered that, across survivors, the most frequently sought information was about cancer recurrence. The participants were survivors of colon cancer (males and females), breast cancer, and prostate cancer. They were, on average, in their early 60s, and the survey population was split evenly between men and women.

However, interest in other topics varied by cancer type: breast cancer survivors were more likely to seek information about topics related to late effects and family members’ risks than prostate and colon cancer survivors. The patterns of seeking for these topics also changed over time. For instance, breast cancer survivors were less likely to seek information about their risks of cancer recurrence in later years than during the first year after their diagnosis.

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An understanding how people seek cancer information during their cancer survivorship is an important component to addressing the physical and emotional issues patients may be experiencing. Clinicians may need to intervene at distinct points during the cancer survivorship period with timely information to address their patients’ concerns about cancer recurrence, late effects, and family members’ risks.

Across all participants, reducing the chance of cancer coming back was the number-one subject researched in all three surveys. More than 28% of cancer survivors expressed looking for information about their risk of cancer recurrence, compared with only 12% who said they had looked for information about the risks of their family members developing a different cancer from their diagnosis.

Cancer type was related to survivors’ information seeking patterns over time. Although breast cancer survivors were more likely to seek information about survivorship topics earlier in their trajectory, their seeking declined over time. In comparison, female colon cancer survivors were more likely to seek information about certain topics than female breast cancer survivors in later years. The researchers surmised this may be due to the ample amount of breast cancer information readily available and the existence of robust survivorship organizations to support breast cancer survivors.

“Not surprisingly, information about reducing risks of recurrence was the most frequently sought after topic among cancer survivors and over all 3 years of the study,” said lead author Andy Tan, PhD. He noted that the study points to several teachable moments for clinicians, as well as avenues for additional study.

Additionally, Tan said, clinicians should consider the early survivorship timeframe as an opportunity to counsel patients on other positive health behaviors, from diet to smoking cessation, to help manage risks of cancer recurrence. This window of opportunity may be when a patient is most open to receiving such information.