This piece reports on preliminary results suggesting that there is an association between beta blockers and the decreased risk of dying from breast cancer or having a recurrence. The story could have been strengthened had it emphasized that the results have not yet been published in a medical journal, included a discussion of costs, presented the results in terms of absolute risk reduction, and provided more information on alternative treatments for reducing the risk of recurrence.
As one expert said in the story “There is more work to be done before you can say whether this relationship is meaningful and will hold up.” Perhaps it’s more accurate to say to that "there is much more work to be done…"
There was no discussion regarding the cost of beta blockers.
The story indicates that those taking beta blockers reduced their risk of dying by 71% compared to those not taking beta blockers. The story also suggests that beta blockers reduce the risk of recurrence by 57%; however, it is not apparent how this percentage was calculated, as it does not appear in the abstract. The results are only provided in terms of relative risk, but absolute risk would give the reader a better sense of the magnitude of the benefit. See our primer on this topic.
The story offered no detailed discussion of side effects of beta blockers. While they are generally considered "safe," the story didn’t explain what – if anything – was observed, and it could have at least listed some of the more common side effects, including drowsiness, dizziness and weakness.
While the story mentioned that the findings were presented at the European Cancer Conference, it did not explicitly indicate that the results are preliminary and have yet to be published in a medical journal. Results that are unpublished have yet to undergo a rigorous review process. It would have also been helpful, had the writer pointed out that the women in the study had primary operable breast cancer. More information on the stage and whether the treatments received were similar across the groups would have also been useful.
Despite these shortcomings, the story did a nice job of describing the methods and indicating that this was a retrospective study and more research is needed to verify the results. Furthermore, it’s clearly stated that the reported relationship between beta blockers and a reduced risk of recurrence and death may be by chance or there may be confounding factors involved.
This story did not exaggerate the seriousness or prevalence of breast cancer.
A medical oncologist and the deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society provided independent commentary for this story.
The story briefly mentions the purported association between aspirin and reduced risk of breast cancer recurrence; however, it would have been useful if the story discussed some of the standard therapies used to prevent recurrence, including radiation therapy and hormone therapy. Furthermore, in the last 10-20 years since these women were treated, better hormonal therapies and other treatments (e.g. herceptin) have been introduced which may or may not influence results.
Beta blockers are widely used to treat a variety of conditions, including high blood pressure, and their availability is not in question.
The story points out that “[t]he concept of controlling tumor growth by preventing a stress or inflammatory response is not novel.” It was not mentioned, however, that this is the first study examining beta blockers in breast cancer patients.
This story does not rely largely on a news release.