Medical Myths on the Internet: 12 Misleading Tactics To Watch Out For

There are few things as frightening as a cancer diagnosis. Suddenly you’re faced with a disease that you know little about, but you’ve heard enough to scare you.

In a best-case scenario, you will have a wonderful doctor and medical team that you trust completely, supportive friends and family, and a positive prognosis. But even then, you might be worried about treatment. Isn’t there something besides chemotherapy? Did I do something to cause cancer? Should I be doing more?

And perhaps you wonder… what about all those claims on the internet?

Endless information and misinformation is available when we open our web browsers, and the fear of cancer can make us vulnerable to false claims and fear mongering. Sometimes things are so cleverly marketed that we can’t even tell we’re being hoodwinked. But take a breath—it is possible to spot false claims if you commit to tempering everything with good judgment and common sense. Here are 12 things to watch out for when reading about cancer on the internet:

Photo: AdobeStock/nstanev
Photo: AdobeStock/nstanev

1. Consider Your Source

Websites with “.gov” or “.edu” addresses are generally reputable sources. Legitimate nonprofit organizations, like American Cancer Society, will have a “.org” web address, but keep in mind that anyone can use a .org extension, so you still need to be discerning. If the information you’re looking at is on the site of a well-established, trusted organization, it’s likely reliable.

The web extension is a good clue to a website’s legitimacy and purpose, but it’s not the whole story. Websites with a “.com” extension are usually commercial organizations looking to make a profit. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad sources, and many “.com” websites have great information, but see if you can tell how they’re making their money. Is it from selling miracle products? If so, buyer beware.

Photo: AdobeStock/Tierney
Photo: AdobeStock/Tierney

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2. Consider the Motivation

Does someone stand to gain by convincing you to pick up what they’re putting down? Is this a group looking for adherents, a website looking for sales, a Facebook friend looking for X number of customers by the end of the day? It’s fine that a website makes money, but if its profitability is dependent on people believing its claims, consider it a big red flag. If you need to buy a book, a supplement, or a subscription to find out the rest of the information you’re looking for, you should probably click away. Legitimate information shouldn’t be “for a limited time only” or “for the first 50 subscribers.”

Photo: AdobeStock/zea_lenanet
Photo: AdobeStock/zea_lenanet

3. Look for references

Scientists have long lists of references at the end of their journal articles to assure you that they’ve done their research from legitimate sources. Internet articles sometimes list references at the end of an article, but they may be a little harder to find. Look for a “references” link at the bottom of an article or the bottom of a page, or see if there are words in the article that are highlighted to lead to source information.

Of course, some blog-type articles may be someone’s opinion and not include references. This still may be a good source of information if the person has the right credentials. See if the author’s name has a link you can click on, or if there is an “about the author” section. Do they have appropriate education and experience, or just a hearty opinion? If you can’t find references or respectable author credentials, the writer might be your great uncle Frank for all we know. Do you trust him with your cancer treatment?

Photo: AdobeStock/Lisa F. Young
Photo: AdobeStock/Lisa F. Young

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