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Fake News, Misinformation, and Cancer

Fake News, Misinformation, and Cancer

Sometimes it’s so well-meant…“[insert name or relationship] had cancer and they took [insert herb/spice/essential oil] and they’ve been fine now for X years.” Other times you’ll see an ad on the web, read an article or see a program on television. It’s far worse in the United States where hospitals, surgeons, and drug companies also advertise (I live in England, where most of this is banned).

Just who can you believe and how can you check to see if the advice or treatment offered is right for you?

Be an informed patient

The first thing I do is ask myself ‘Does it make sense?’ Is a household spice like turmeric really likely to cure something that drugs researchers have been looking into for years? It’s possible, but have there been any scientific trials on it? A true trial will be a Randomly Controlled Trial (RCT) in which patients will be randomly allocated to one or more treatments or no treatment at all, but with a placebo (a pill with no content apart from some sugar, to make it look like a treatment). To have impact hundreds, maybe thousands of people will be involved in the trial, and it will run for a long period of time, up to ten years in some cases. At the end of the trial, the researchers will report on the treatment(s) and make conclusions.

So — has there been a full trial on this treatment? A quick search on Google will quickly tell you. Check to see if the trial was actually on humans too — trials on mice and rats are interesting but won’t cut it with me. If a medical professional is writing then they should quote trials to back up their recommendations or at least give enough information to allow you to find the trials they are relying upon.

While you are searching don’t forget to use your nose. What are they trying to sell, and who are they? Big drugs companies make their money by selling high-ticket items, not aspirin or other generic drugs. Generic drugs are those now out of patent so that any licensed producer can make them. The new drug from BigCo might actually be only a slight improvement on the older treatment, but they won’t tell you that. Perhaps there’s a well-known prostate cancer surgeon who advertises heavily and claims very high rates of post-operative erectile function for his patients in his literature but won’t tell you how he arrived at his data. Did he cherry-pick his patients to ensure only those who needed minimal surgery were included in his report?

A real-life example of misinformation…

If it’s not a drug or a treatment what else is it they are selling? Despite the prevalence of the internet, there’s still a load of money to be made selling a book, particularly if it plays to people’s’ health worries (brought on by the internet, perhaps?). Take this article by breast cancer surgeon to the stars Dr. Kristi Funk, promoting her book.1 It all sounds pretty believable, and her assertions are made all the more credible by her patient list. But is it really the truth? Then a blogger takes down Dr. Funk’s claims very well, quoting among others an English breast surgeon Dr. Liz O’Riordan — who soon has a book to sell herself!2 Later the same paper that quoted Dr. Funk then published this article from Dr. O’Riordan, who also refutes many of Dr. Funk’s claims.3

The original article by Dr. Funk quotes no trials or any hard data. Her facts are just that — her’s. Compare it with the second and third articles calling out this misinformation and you’ll see hard, up to date data used and cited. It may take a while to get used to being so inquiring of medical articles, but in the long run, it might save you money or better still your life.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. The Essential Daily Briefing. Angelina Jolie’s breast surgeon explains what to eat and how to live to help avoid cancer. Accessed on January 8, 2019.
  2. Respectful Insolence. Dr. Kristi Funk: Angelina Jolie’s surgeon is spreading misinformation about breast cancer. Accessed on January 8, 2019.
  3. The Essential Daily Briefing. We’re breast cancer doctors – and know claims the disease can be ‘avoided’ by lifestyle choices are unfounded. Accessed on January 8, 2019.