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Breaking bad news of a breast cancer diagnosis over the telephone: an emerging trend



This study evaluated how breast cancer diagnoses were shared with patients.


Current members of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation’s Army of Women cohort were sent one email with a link to a survey assessing how their breast cancer diagnosis was communicated, a description of their support system during treatment, basic demographic information, and breast cancer diagnosis details.


Participants (n = 2896) were more likely to be given their diagnosis over the telephone in more recent years (OR 1.07, 95% CI 1.06–1.08). Up until about 10 years ago (1967–2006), breast cancer diagnoses were communicated in person more often than by telephone. Since 2006, more than half of participants learned about their diagnosis over the telephone. From 2015 to 2017, almost 60% of participants learned about their diagnosis over the telephone. Among those who heard the news in person, a steady 40% were alone. Characteristics of those who received the news over the telephone included having identified support members, heterosexual identity, and a diagnosis of in situ breast cancer.


Receiving a telephone call about breast cancer diagnosis may be the norm rather than the exception in health care today. Trends in practice, as well as current best practices based primarily on expert opinion, may not provide optimal care for women diagnosed with breast cancer. Patient outcome research to guide future practice, such as the impact of modes of delivery of bad news, is urgently needed to determine appropriate patient-centered approaches for notification of breast cancer diagnoses.

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Correspondence to Jane A. McElroy.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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McElroy, J.A., Proulx, C.M., Johnson, L. et al. Breaking bad news of a breast cancer diagnosis over the telephone: an emerging trend. Support Care Cancer 27, 943–950 (2019).

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  • Breast cancer diagnosis
  • Patient-provider communication
  • Telephone communication
  • Bad news