Skip to main content.

Researching the obvious: It stinks to have cancer

Researching the obvious: It stinks to have cancer

Picture of Debra  Sherman

Being poor stinks. Having cancer really stinks. You probably can’t do worse than being poor and having cancer.  

That seems so obvious, I’m not sure why anyone needs a study to confirm it.  But researchers actually looked that this problem and found exactly what anyone might expect: Breast cancer patients with higher incomes were more likely to receive care that followed the guidelines set by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) than patients with lower incomes. 

The NCCN is an alliance of 23 of the world’s leading cancer centers that has put together treatment guidelines that are widely recognized and used as the standard of care.

Specifically, researchers found that breast cancer patients with an annual family income of more than $90,000 were twice as likely to receive care that followed the NCCN guidelines for radiation, compared with those whose with incomes below $50,000. 

The study looked into disparities in chemotherapy treatments, too. It found that lower income patients were almost five times as likely to receive care that did not follow NCCN guidelines for chemotherapy to treat their breast cancer. Again, not very surprising.

These and other findings came from a field of health research called disparity studies. They touch on an important topic — how poverty and other economic factors can make a difference in access to health care. 

But at a time when there are so many vital questions to ask, and research budgets everywhere are under attack, I wonder why well-meaning researchers pick such obvious questions to ask. 

Why are there so many obvious studies? Is it easier to get funding? Are they cheaper to execute? Is the bar lower? Or, am I just being too critical and harsh? After all, I am a stage 4 lung cancer patient who’s anxious for answers. I want someone to find a cure already! 

I asked Dr. Harlan Krumholz, a Yale physician whose research focuses on improving patient outcomes and health system performance. He is a big wheel in the world of medical research: director of the Yale-New Haven Hospital Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation and the director of the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program at the Yale University School of Medicine.

As far as I know, Krumholz is not sick and he agrees with me. He says that when it comes to medical studies, the pressure may be to produce volume over value. 

“High value articles often take patience and resources, both of which may be in short supply by institutions that employ investigators,” Krumholz tells me. 

“But the biggest problem may be a research culture that is not often enough asking itself whether the information it produces truly has value for others and will contribute to better lives for patients and the public,” he adds. 

The breast cancer treatment study was presented at the American Association for Cancer Research Cancer Health Disparities special conference in Atlanta this month.

To be sure, there were some important studies presented in Atlanta that would seem to advance cancer care and address health disparities.

One such study looked at potential biological factors contributing to racial disparities in prostate cancer incidence and mortality between African American and non-Hispanic white men in the United States. Another examined the genetics of an inherited predisposition to breast cancer. A third looked at genetic alterations to a specific gene family that may be responsible for survival disparities seen between African-American and non-Latino white men with head and neck cancer.

These strike me as potentially useful to patients.

But there still are far too many obvious studies, in my view. And they are everywhere you turn. 

Scientific American published a list, of the 12 most obvious scientific findings in 2012. According to that list, someone actually spent time and money to determine that calling an ambulance improved heart attack survival. Someone else conducted a study that discovered, amazingly, that smoking pot can make your mind fuzzy. 

With research dollars so hard to come by these days, it seems more important than ever that the medical research community take a critical look at what questions need to be asked and answered in order to best serve patients.

This post originally ran in "Cancer In Context" and has been run with permission from Thompson Reuters.

Related Stories:

Giving back: data for cancer research

Do you need to love your doctor? Cancer made me realize that I do

Canine Therapy: You big, beautiful dog, you!


Picture of

While I understand the author's frustration, studies into socioeconomic and other health disparities are undertaken because the findings are not so obvious. The health impact of inequities is ignored in our policies, in our politics, and often in our daily lives. There are no changes to regulations or policies to obviate "the obvious" without evidence - without studies that can be cited by advocates and politicians in policy briefs, white papers, and speeches. If we want to improve health for everyone and reduce health disparities, it is imperative that researchers do quality science on topics where we as individuals or as a society can intervene.

Leave A Comment


How can students head back to school in the fall without triggering new waves of sick families, teachers and staff? In this webinar, we’ll take a deeper look at what’s at stake for student learning and wellness as the pandemic continues. Sign-up here!

The Center for Health Journalism is dedicated to supporting journalists covering two of the biggest stories of our time — the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism and inequities in America. We provide reporters with intensive training instituteswebinars and tips about craft and content and are providing deep and sustained support for reporters and their newsrooms in this historic and difficult moment. You can donate through the USC web portal at this link. Pressed for time? You can also text to donate! No amount is too small; just send a text to 41-444 and type the message CHJ for further instructions.


Follow Us



CHJ Icon