Remember that old song that goes “you’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t mess with Mister In-Between”? A recent study by researchers at St. Louis University School of Medicine suggests that this time-honored piece of advice can make a big difference when it comes to educating African Americans about the importance of cancer screening and early detection.

The study’s findings, published in the November 2008 issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, indicate that cancer screening messages targeted to blacks are more effective when they take a positive rather than negative approach. In fact, the researchers found that negative messages (e.g., that blacks have a higher risk for certain cancers than whites) can actually backfire and make African Americans less likely to get screened.

First, the researchers asked the 300 African American study participants about their habits of getting screened for colon and rectal cancer, as well as other cancers. They were also asked about their general mistrust of the medical system. Next, the participants were asked to read one of four different news articles about colon cancer that were created especially for the study:

  • One article stated that colon cancer is an important problem for black Americans.
  • Another article focused on the fact that colon cancer outcomes were worse for blacks than for whites.
  • The third article reported that outcomes for African Americans with colon cancer were improving, but not as much as for whites.
  • The fourth article talked only about how outcomes for blacks with colon cancer were improving over time.
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The participants were then asked questions about how likely they were to get screened for colon cancer. The most encouraging responses came from participants who had read the fourth article (the one with the most positive message). Conversely, the article with the scariest message (that blacks had the worst colon cancer outcomes of any racial group) was the most likely to cause a negative response.

According to the study’s lead author, the article that focused exclusively on how outcomes for African Americans were improving “got the most positive response overall regardless of an individual’s level of mistrust. The positive message seemed to wipe out the differences between high and low mistrust levels.”

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