Overcoming Communication Barriers with Metastatic Breast Cancer Patients

Today’s post comes from Worldwide Breast Cancer – a nonprofit founded by Corrine Ellsworth Beaumont (MFA, PhD).


Public understanding continues to be limited in breast cancer, but even more so in metastatic breast cancer (MBC). One in every ten people diagnosed with breast cancer will already be at an advanced stage at the time of diagnosis and almost two thirds will develop a metastasis.

"Your cancer has spread"; when a patient receives a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, it is overwhelming. Following that first conversation, healthcare professionals (HCPs) and patients both admit that the amount of information they remember afterwards is very limited. This is due to 1) language hurdles including medical terminology, 2) emotional shock [1] and 3) time constraints for the patient-HCP interaction.


The Impact of Visuals in Health Care Communication 

Studies of the use of pictographs in patient-HCP communications show patients’ memory recall reaches a mean of 80% for average-literacy populations[i] and 85% for low literacy populations[ii] with a 71% accurate recall four weeks later for low literacy patients. Based on these studies, Worldwide Breast Cancer has developed another visual communication aid: the “Dandelion toolkit” using a friendly metaphor of a dandelion to explain staging, subtype, and treatment options in MBC.

Addressing the unmet needs of MBC patients that deal with a high disease burden and improving their quality of life is of the utmost importance. In this context, facilitating patient-physician relationships and communication by adding visual tools to conversations with MBC patients we can: 

  1. Reduce time for HCPs in repeating information to patients
  2. Help low literacy patients better engage in their health plan
  3. Enable the entire healthcare team to communicate in a consistent way with the patient throughout the care continuum
  4. Improve patient adherence through increased understanding
  5. Have a better informed network of family and friends supporting the patient
  6. Raise quality of life (QoL) issues from the beginning alongside treatment options

With the same power of the design used to explain breast cancer through the image of a lemon, we now expect that the Dandelion Toolkit can help both patients and health care teams reach their own communication goals and, thus, improve MBC patient outcomes.

More information on MBC Resources for community cancer clinics is available here.



[1] (in a non-life-threatening situation, patients remembered just 14% of their conversations[1] with HCPs. Often MBC patients say that after hearing their cancer has spread, they remember virtually nothing.)
[i] Kessels, R.P.C. “Patients’ memory for medical information”, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 2003. 96(5):219-222 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC539473/
[ii] Houts, P.S., Witmer, J.T., Egeth, H.E., et al. “Using Pictographs to enhance recall of spoken medical instructions ll”. Patient Educ Couns, 2001. 43:231-42 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11384821   2008: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10026551/