Cancer patients urged to avoid 'terrifying' misinformation

Cancer patients urged to avoid 'terrifying' misinformation

Professor Declan Devane was speaking to an Irish Cancer Society patient webinar on Monday. File picture

Misinformation about cancer and treatment can be terrifying, a researcher in this area has warned, urging patients to question anything that seems “too good to be true”.

Declan Devane, who is studying this issue, urged patients to question sources of information on treatments or products, especially online.

“This is the day and age of access to information. But the unrestricted access to information can be quite terrifying in some ways,” he said.

This should include looking for evidence behind celebrity recommendations or personal stories as well as questioning doctors, he said.

Referring to celebrities. he said: “It’s what access do they have — what are they basing their information on? Have they considered the reliability of the information on which they are basing their recommendations?”

Prof Devane, an academic at NUI Galway who is studying the topic of misinformation about cancer with a research grant from the Irish Cancer Society, told the society’s patient webinar that anything that seems too good to be true “probably is”, and that opinion alone is not sufficient even from experts.

He advised patients that just because a product worked for one person does not necessarily mean it will work for everyone. In an interview after the webinar, he said there are vested interests “driving the way information is put across”.

Patients should be wary of “exaggerated importance” given to products, he said. “Look at the numbers, asking what’s the science behind that exaggerated importance is the critical thing that needs to be looked at,” said Prof Devane.

He advised similar caution around small studies with 20 or 30 participants making “miraculous claims”.

He advised patients to search critically online. He said: 

Do so in the understanding there is lots of misinformation, unreliable information, out there. 

“Think about what options matter, and discuss that with [their] clinician at the first port of call. Ask what evidence is informing their recommendations for particular treatments.”

He urged patients to seek transparency and to be more demanding.

“Having to hunt around to find where the citation in a paper is, doesn’t suggest to me reliability of information. The public should be more demanding really,” he said.

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