Conducting Research Online About Cancer

February 19, 2019

When evaluating cancer information found on the internet, consider the source.

User, Beware!

For many people facing cancer, the Internet is the first place to go for information. Whether they’re looking for help in making decisions about their illness or news about the latest treatment options, patients have greater access to cancer information than ever before. Many websites provide basic knowledge about certain types of cancer, current clinical trials and available support. Some offer information on research articles, doctors and hospitals, cancer treatment guidelines, drugs and complementary and alternative therapies. Always remember, not all information is good information. And bad information can hurt when it comes to cancer.Cancer information on the Internet comes from many different sources—expert health organizations, government agencies, universities, merchants, interest groups, the general public and scam artists. Many of these sources are people or groups that really want to help others learn more. But because anyone can post information on the Internet, some people could be passing along information that is wrong. Some will even try to deceive people.

How to Evaluate Cancer Information Found Online

When evaluating cancer-related information online, consider the:

  • Source: Reputable websites tell visitors, often on an “About Us” page, who’s running the show. Are they health professionals? What are their credentials?

Red flags: No contact information, no physical address

  • Funding: The funding source should be clearly stated or apparent. The endings on Web addresses—.com (commercial), .org (noncommercial organization), .edu (education), .gov (government)—are clues to the website’s funding source, target audience and motives.

Red flag: Unclear or unverified funding sources

  • Origin of content: Is content based on research findings published in reputable medical journals? Are there citations in the text that enable visitors to verify those findings? Nonprofessional opinion and advice, as well as individual case histories and testimonials (some of which might not be genuine), are poor substitutes for rigorous science.

Red flag: Information collected from unidentified sources

  • Objectivity: Information should be unbiased, unless otherwise labeled, and complete. Reliable resources acknowledge that experts sometimes disagree about cancer causes and treatments.

Red flags: Capital letters, exclamation points, descriptions such as “miracle cure,” “breakthrough,” “secret ingredient” and “natural” (which doesn’t necessarily mean safe or effective)

  • Currency of information: Content must be routinely updated because cancer research moves quickly. What was considered sound medical knowledge just a few years ago might not be valid today.

Red flags: Undated content, broken links

  • Quality safeguards: At the best websites, an editorial board of top professionals with relevant expertise reviews the content.
  • Privacy protections: A visitor’s health information should remain confidential. Credible websites explain what they will and will not do with such information, if they ask for it. Many commercial sites sell it to other companies.

This is not to say that people shouldn’t trust anything on the Internet—just that they should choose sources carefully. Even on trusted, highly regarded websites, it’s important to note that the health information is just general information that might not apply to a specific situation.

Always remember that information found on the Internet should not take the place of medical advice. Anyone with a health-related problem should talk to a doctor. There is no other way to get the same level of experience and personalized care as sitting down with a doctor who can offer advice tailored to a patient’s health history and unique medical situation.

Online Support Groups, Mailing Lists and Chat Rooms

Reality Checkers

If a statement or claim seems too good to be true, it probably is. When conducting online research, be sure to check unsubstantiated claims through reliable resources, such as those listed here.

  • Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: “About Herbs, Botanicals & Other Products”
  • American Cancer Society: “Rumors, Myths, and Truths”
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology: “Cancer Myths”
  • National Cancer Institute—Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine: “CAM Therapies: A-Z”
  • Quackwatch: “A Special Message for Cancer Patients Seeking ‘Alternative’ Treatments”

Searches produce not only what’s asked for but also commercial results, meaning search engines return “sponsored” findings with their results. Often, these links are at the top of the results list. They might be in a box, in a different color, above a line or below a header, but users should be able to tell these links from the results of the search. The sponsored results are actually ads for other websites. Sometimes users will find the links helpful, but many of the sponsors are trying to sell a product. Seller information can be helpful for many products, but it’s not likely to be the kind of information people want to use in choosing their cancer treatment. Online support groups are made up of people who share information and support over the Internet through chat rooms, discussion boards or mailing lists. These websites allow people to connect with others like them who might otherwise be difficult to reach. They also allow users to keep their real identities private if they choose to do so.

Email Messages

Some people find online support groups helpful. It might be comforting for some patients to share their experiences with other people who are facing the same things. Still, these places might not be the best sources of health information, especially if they are not monitored by trained professionals or experts. Patients should discuss any information they get with their health care team to see if it applies to their situation. Also, they should be aware that sometimes nonpatients monitor the conversations of online support groups.If patients share their contact information on websites, emails could start pouring in. Well-meaning friends and family might also send emails with cancer information and various cancer treatment options. Patients should carefully evaluate any email messages they receive. Consider the source of the message and its purpose. Many companies and organizations use email to advertise or attract people to their websites. The accuracy of the information could be influenced by their desire to promote their product or service.

One way to sift through the information is to identify respected, reliable sources of health information and use them as primary resources.