‘The more outlandish the claim, the more likely it will stick in people’s minds’ – expert’s warning as fake news and cancer ‘cures’ put patients at risk

Professor Declan Devane of the University of Galway

Eilish O'Regan

Fake news around cancer treatments and unfounded cures are putting patients with the disease at risk, a leading health academic has warned.

Declan Devane, who is Professor of Health Research Methodology at the University of Galway, said cancer patients should be supported in how to separate the bogus or the well-meaning wrong information from the trusted evidence.

He is behind a new free online service to be launched by the University of Galway, and funded by the Irish Cancer Society, in the next six months which will give cancer patients the tools to examine what is real or not when it comes to information around the disease.

“It’s not that anyone with cancer or other illness is gullible, but the way misinformation is promoted has become much more sophisticated. It can be more challenging to identify misinformation,” said Prof Devane.

Speaking in advance of the Irish Cancer Society’s Daffodil Day, he said that as part of his work he has examined different areas around misinformation.

“There is no concrete evidence around claims that microwaves, mobile phones or high-powered electric lines can cause cancer. It is important not to let fear based on unproven claims control our lives.

“There is no single food or diet that can cure cancer. We need to support a healthy balanced healthy diet, but diet alone cannot cure cancer.

“Misinformation comes from a whole different set of sources. It’s a challenge to pinpoint one.”

Unregulated social media is rife and allows information to be passed on quickly and easily, he added.

“Misinformation can spread fast. It can penetrate faster and more quickly than information based on the truth.

“The more sensationalised and outlandish the claim is the more likely it will stick in people’s minds.”

He referred to unverified websites and blogs, where people can intentionally spread misinformation for financial gain. However, it can also come from the well-intentioned as well as family and friends.

“Cancer is particularly affected by organisations promoting alternative treatments with a financial motive, such as claims around certain crystals and light therapies. There is a multitude of these [so-called] treatments.

“Sadly, out of fear and desperation, people may choose them in place of conventional treatments and that could affect their health dramatically. There is some evidence that people with aggressive types of cancer have delayed conventional treatment and they have shortened their survival.

“On occasion you see wellness influencers and wellness websites from people who have no training.”

He said these websites could feature patient testimonials of people to persuade others to try a diet or supplement or treatments.

“These personal stories can be very compelling. They can use emotionally charged language to support their case or buy their product. It is a scary time and people may not know who to trust,” said Prof Devane.

At the very least people could waste time and money as well the energy they have invested.

Among the treatments promoted are high-dose vitamin C, coffee enemas which involve injecting room-temperature coffee into the rectum, ozone therapy and use of crystals.

“We need to put greater effort in to how we can counter claims. Support groups and advocates need to talk about misinformation. There needs to be tighter regulation also.”

Thanks to the work being done by the University of Galway and the Irish Cancer Society, in around six months there will be a free online programme people can access on how to identify misinformation, looking beyond headlines.

“Consider the source and beware of sensational headlines. Personal stories can be powerful but they may not be based on evidence,” said Prof Devane.

“Just because it has worked for one person does not mean it will for somebody else. Be critical and cautious around financial motives – ask yourself is there a financial motive? When you hear a health claim ask yourself if it could this be unreliable before sharing it.”

Prof Devane added: “The online education programme we are developing to help people impacted by cancer diagnosis to more easily understand and assess the reliability of treatment claims will be completed later this year.

"Subject to funding, our plans then are to evaluate the programme thoroughly. We expect this evaluation to show that the programme is effective, relevant and useful for people. That being the case, we will roll it out for free use by the public.”