Reader Beware

I read something on Facebook last week that someone had “shared” from another source, and it really bugged me.  It started with the following:  “AFTER YEARS OF TELLING PEOPLE CHEMOTHERAPY IS THE ONLY WAY TO TRY AND ELIMINATE CANCER, JOHNS HOPKINS IS FINALLY STARTING TO TELL YOU THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE WAY …”

I could tell that the piece was in no way connected with any reputable medical center or research institution.  But I have a medical degree.  The piece was full of scientifically false statements, and full of “health” advice that is in no way espoused by the medical establishment.  There were a couple of reasonable general tips thrown in (i.e. eat lots of vegetables, exercise daily), albeit with baloney reasoning behind them, and enough simplified statements that had partial truths thrown in that someone without a health or science background could think it was real.

So why does this bother me so much?  Fraudulent “medical” posts can do a great deal of harm.  A person believing scam posts could take substances which might hurt them, either because the substances themselves may be dangerous or because they could interact with a person’s other medications.  A person may also delay seeking medical attention when necessary because they are under the illusion that researchers at a premier medical institution have stated that eating vegetables, taking unspecified supplements, breathing deeply, and avoiding milk, sugar, coffee and chocolate will cure cancer.

So how can you tell which posts are scams and which have merit?  A great first step is to check out www.snopes.com.  They don’t always get every detail right, but they do a very good job of discerning whether a circulating article is true or false, and they provide references (and links to their references).  When I read the above post, I went to the Snopes website and typed “Johns Hopkins cancer” into the search box.  The post I had seen was in the first listed result, and was listed as “false.”  It turns out that this particular scam post has been circulating for several years.

Fake “articles” like this one take people’s focus off what research actually shows to reduce cancer risk.  Thankfully, the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins put out a detailed response to this fraudulent post: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/kimmel_cancer_center/news_events/featured/cancer_update_email_it_is_a_hoax.html

The following is a direct quote from this page (there is much more information on the page, so please follow the above link if you’re interested):

“Several Johns Hopkins experts participated in the World Cancer Research Fund – American Institute for Cancer Research report Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective, published in November 2007, which is considered by cancer prevention experts to be an authoritative source of information on diet, physical activity and cancer. Their recommendations for cancer prevention and for good health in general are:

  1. Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight.
  2. Be physically active for at least 30 minutes every day.
  3. Avoid sugary drinks. Limit consumption of energy-dense foods (particularly processed foods high in added sugar, or low in fiber, or high in fat).
  4. Eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes such as beans.
  5. Limit consumption of red meats (such as beef, pork and lamb) and avoid processed meats.
  6. If consumed at all, limit alcoholic drinks to 2 for men and 1 for women a day.
  7. Limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with salt (sodium).
  8. Don’t use supplements to protect against cancer.

Our experts recommend that people meet their nutritional needs through their food choices. While vitamin supplements can be helpful in people with nutritional deficiencies, evidence suggests that supplementation above what the body can use provides no added health benefit.”

I get forwarded hoax e-mails frequently, and see them on Facebook all the time.  Before I even turn to Snopes, one clue that tells me that an article is fraudulent is a lack of a citation or link to the original source.  Another sign is that the post begins with something to the effect of “Hey Everyone, I checked this out on Snopes and it’s true!”  Pretty much every time I see this, when I go to the Snopes site it turns out to be blatantly false.

A lot of the “warning” posts or missing person posts out there are hoaxes.  Aside from being a general nuisance, these posts can cause a boy-who-cried-wolf effect and end up causing people to just ignore all of them, even the ones that are true.

Why do people start these rumors/urban legends/hoaxes?  Some of them may be put out there to sell a particular product (e.g. “Did you know that you can cure X by simply taking 200 milligrams of Y twice daily?”), and a lot of them seem to be out there just because someone wanted to feel the power of starting a rumor.  We all have a limit to the number of issues that can take up active space in our brains – if that space is taken up by falsehoods, we may miss the true and important ones.

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