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Communication in health care: How to have conversations that could save lives

Discover how to have conversations about cancer and how talking about cancer can potentially save lives, with Cancer Research UK.

Cancer Research Uk X Futurelearn Talk About Cancer

Explore the potentially life-saving impact of talking about cancer in this post from our partner, Cancer Research UK. This expert advice covers everything you need to know about having conversations that could save lives. To learn new communication skills geared specifically towards cancer prevention and early detection, join Cancer Research UK’s Talking About Cancer course

Having supportive conversations about cancer and health could save lives, but it can be difficult to know how to broach them. We look at why it’s so important to have these conversations and how you can access some tips and tools to help.  

Cancer is one of the most common diseases worldwide – there were an estimated 18 million new cases of cancer worldwide in 2020* and 1 in 2 people in the UK will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime. However, around 40% of cancer cases in the UK are preventable, largely through making healthy changes. That means there’s a large proportion of cancer cases each year, more than 135,000 in the UK in fact, where we do have some control over the cause and there’s a potentially life-saving action we can take.  

Cancer Research UK’s Talking About Cancer course arms you with the information, skills and resources to have supportive conversations with people about what causes cancer and what healthy changes they could make to reduce their risk. The course also helps you to raise awareness of the importance of spotting cancer early. It looks at strategies you can use to encourage people to take action and speak to their doctor if they notice something that’s not right for them.

How can you help people reduce their risk of cancer?

Causes of cancer can be placed into two rough camps; things we can control and others that we can’t. The latter includes things like our aging, our genes and random genetic changes that happen as we get older, while things we have some control over includes:

  • Stopping smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight 
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Being active
  • Enjoying the sun safely 
  • Cutting back on alcohol 

Approaching conversations about making these changes can be difficult. People may have barriers that prevent them from taking action. However, there are some key skills and methods that can help you feel more equipped and confident to talk to people and support them to reduce their cancer risk with healthy changes, some examples are: 

  • Knowing key facts around cancer prevention 
  • Listening well
  • Empathising 
  • Identifying healthy and sustainable ways to make changes
  • Being non-judgemental 
  • Signposting to relevant information and support services 

These are just some of the skills and methods that can help you have a supportive conversation around helping someone reduce their risk of cancer. You can learn to build these and more on our Talking About Cancer course. Prevention is not a promise. We can’t say for sure that someone not smoking or keeping a healthy weight or avoiding alcohol won’t get cancer, but it will help stack the odds in their favour. 

Why is giving people the best chance of an early diagnosis of cancer so important? 

Cancer that’s diagnosed at an early stage, when it isn’t too large and hasn’t spread, is more likely to be treated successfully and a person’s chances of survival are much better. 

For example, more than 9 in 10 bowel cancer patients will survive the disease for 5 years or more if diagnosed at the earliest stage, compared to only around 1 in 10 if diagnosed at the latest stage. Similarly, almost all (98%) of women diagnosed with breast cancer at the earliest stage survive their disease for 5 years or more compared to around 1 in 4 (26%) if diagnosed at the latest stage of the disease. 

There can be several reasons for delays in a cancer diagnosis, but one of the common ones is that there are so many potential signs and symptoms of cancer and a low awareness of the importance of visiting the doctor with these sooner rather than later. 

So how can we help people get an earlier diagnosis? Instead of trying to teach people every single possible sign or symptom of cancer, we need to encourage them to listen to their body and to speak to their doctor if they spot anything unusual for them. Helping people understand the importance of speaking to the doctor sooner rather than later is vital. 

The Talking About Cancer course will help you to support people to know their bodies and understand the importance of speaking to their doctor early. Often people put off seeing the doctor for various reasons, so the course also explains how you can help people overcome some of the common barriers to seeing their doctor as quickly as possible. It’s not always possible to get an early diagnosis, but by helping someone get medical advice sooner rather than later we could make all the difference.   

Learn from the experts at Cancer Research UK about how you could save lives by having supportive conversations around how people can reduce their risk of cancer and the importance of spotting it early. 

Join the course

As estimated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) for all cancers combined excluding non-melanoma skin cancer

†Figure based on Ahmad AS, Ormiston-Smith N, Sasieni PD. Trends in the lifetime risk of developing cancer in Great Britain: Comparison of risk for those born in 1930 to 1960(link is external).  Br J Cancer 2015;bjc.2014:606.

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