Background. An emotional campaign promoting the Di Bella cancer therapy was launched by the Italian media in 1997. Its effects on patients' hopes, feelings, and decision-making processes were largely unknown. We undertook an investigation of this issue. Methods. Between Feb 25 and March 31, 1998, a ten-item questionnaire was distributed to 1300 unselected adult patients attending 13 cancer centres throughout Italy. Four expert psycho-oncologists reviewed the design and validity of the contents of the questionnaire. Sociodemographic information was also collected. Findings. 1120 (86%) questionnaires were returned and analysed. The main sources of information were television/radio (62%) and newspapers (26%); only 5% cited doctors. The campaign induced optimism in the patients about the efficacy of the method (ineffective 1%, effective 42%, uncertain 57%), and 53% said their hope of cure was increased. However, 48% felt more confused. 24% do not discuss new treatments with their oncologists, and 20% would like to but cannot. When choosing a treatment, the advice of a trusted doctor was judged more important than scientific progress (53% vs 32%) and 63% would try even unproven treatments in the hope of a cure. Replies to many of the questions were influenced by patients' educational attainment and by the degree of communication with their oncologists. Interpretation. Science cannot prevent the harm caused by such campaigns and their psychological consequences, particularly for less educated patients. When making decisions, patients are looking for hope from the treatment and trust in their doctor, both of which depend on effective doctor-patient communications that therefore need to be improved.
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