Fake cancer news is common online, study finds



Don’t believe everything you read on social media about cancer and cancer treatment.

A new study finds that one-third of the most popular articles on social media about treating common cancers contain misinformation, and most can be downright dangerous.

“The worst-case scenario is when it causes a person to refuse proven cancer treatments in favor of a treatment that has not been shown to treat cancer effectively,” said the author of the study, Dr. Skyler Johnson.

“These inherent dangers compromise our ability as oncologists to cure cancer, improve survival or at least extend and improve quality of life,” Johnson said.

Consider these fraudulent claims, for example: “Chemotherapy is ineffective in treating cancer”, or “Cannabis cures lung cancer” or “Prostate cancer can be cured with baking soda”.

Articles containing this type of misinformation get more clicks and engagement than those based on fact, according to the study.

And such misinformation can lead to the delay in the proper screening, diagnosis and treatment of cancer, said Johnson, a physician-researcher at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah.

His team identified 200 of the most popular articles on breast, lung, prostate and colon cancer on Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and Pinterest between January 2018 and December 2019. Experts from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network have reviewed publications for accuracy.

Of the 200 articles, about 33% contained disinformation. Of these, around 77% had information that could negatively influence the outcome of the treatment.

The study showed that many clicks, likes and comments took place on Facebook.

Much of the damaging content came from New Age websites, not reputable news sources, but Johnson said it can be hard to tell the difference.

“Be aware that a lot of information should be critically appraised because there is a possibility that what you are reading is inaccurate or potentially harmful,” Johnson said.

“Discuss your questions with your oncologist and work as a team to develop a treatment plan that meets your goals,” Johnson said.

Going forward, Johnson wants to identify predictors of misinformation and harm on social media in order to help patients and doctors better navigate this Wild West.

The results were published this month in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Unfortunately, the wave of disinformation online came as no surprise to Dr. S. Vincent Rajkumar, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who reviewed the study’s results.

That’s not to say that social media doesn’t have anything positive to offer people with cancer, he added.

“Social media sites can offer social support or advice for dealing with side effects of cancer treatment,” said Rajkumar, who is also editor of the Blood Cancer Journal.

“For medical advice, however, it’s always best to rely on your doctor, an academic center, or a government organization like the National Institutes of Health,” Rajkumar said.

More information

The American Cancer Society offers advice on finding cancer information online.

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