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Bogus information on cancer common online, study shows

By Denise Mann, HealthDay News

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 treatment for common cancers contains misinformation -- and most of it can be downright dangerous.

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

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

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Consider these fraudulent claims, for instance: "Chemotherapy is ineffective for the treatment of cancer," or "cannabis cures lung cancer," or "prostate cancer can be cured by baking soda."

Articles with this type of misinformation get more clicks and engagement than those based on facts, the study found.

And such misinformation can result in the delay of appropriate cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment, said Johnson, a physician-scientist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah.

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

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Of the 200 articles, about 33% contained misinformation. Of these, roughly 77% had information that could negatively influence treatment outcomes.

Many of the clicks, likes and comments occurred on Facebook, the study showed.

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

"Be aware that much of the information needs to be evaluated critically, because there is a chance that what you might be reading is inaccurate or potentially harmful," Johnson said.

"Discuss your questions with your oncologist and work together as a team to come up with 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 findings were published this month in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Unfortunately, the wave of online misinformation comes as no surprise to Dr. S. Vincent Rajkumar, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who reviewed the study findings.

This is not to say that social media doesn't have something positive to offer people with cancer, he added.

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"Social media sites can offer social support or tips on coping with side effects of cancer therapy," said Rajkumar, who is also editor in chief of Blood Cancer Journal.

"For medical advice, however, it's always better to rely on your physician, an academic center, or a government organization like the National Institutes of Health," Rajkumar said.

More information

The American Cancer Society offers tips on searching online for information about cancer.

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