How to Filter Cancer Prevention Headlines

Guest post submitted by MD Anderson Cancer Center

Most of us can’t keep up with all the new ways to avoid cancer. Thanks to the Internet, we now have an unlimited supply of cancer knowledge at our fingertips.  But, how can we filter out the good, the bad and the questionable?

Below are steps to help you tease out the facts when reading that next big news story on preventing cancer.

Says who?

Don’t just take the writer’s word for it.  Dig a little deeper to find out the source behind the hype.  The American Cancer Society says you should ask yourself these questions when reading an article:

  • Was this a press release from a company announcing a new breakthrough in cancer prevention?
  • Was it a report from a clinical study that was given at a scientific conference?
  • Was it a report from a study that was published in a respected medical journal?
  • Where was the study done? What do you know about the research centers that conducted and sponsored the study?

Knowing the answers to these questions can help you decide on where you need to go to seek more details about the study findings. Visit the source of the information to learn more about how this new substance or method was tested.

Find out how the test was done

Headlines often mislead people into thinking a substance (food, drug, vitamin) or activity has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to prevent cancer when really it hasn’t.

Don’t be misled. Read the original study report, and look for details about the research done to support this new theory.

Many studies do not involve people. It takes a number of studies — including lab, animal and human testing — before most methods or substances can be proven effective in preventing cancer.

In lab studies, researchers test a new method or substance on cells. If results show a positive effect on cells, the researchers may publish a report about their findings. Yes, you may see this report on the evening news, but that doesn’t mean this new method or substance is ready for use in humans.

Because a new method or substance worked in the lab, researchers may decide to test it in animals. Doing this provides information about whether or not this method or substance will work in humans. Researchers also can learn more about any potential harms.

Results of these studies also may get published and featured on the evening news. Even if the results are positive, don’t get too excited yet. What works in animals does not always have the same effect on people. In fact, it can even turn out to be harmful. Wait for researchers to learn more before giving it a try.

Studies involving people offer most insight

If a news report is about a study involving people, this is a good sign. It means the new substance or method probably has successfully passed lab and animal studies. But, even human studies must go through several phases before a substance or method can be considered safe and effective. Human studies usually begin among small groups of people to determine effectiveness before testing in larger groups.

Look closely at the evidence

Not every study yields the same results. This is why you may hear news stories with conflicting information from month to month. Look closely at the evidence and follow the steps listed above.

If you want to try a new cancer prevention method or substance, talk to your doctor first. Your doctor can tell you more about the possible side effects and harms, or if it interferes with any medicines you may be taking. Remember, what works on one person may not work on everyone.

Gather as much information as you can before starting anything new. There’s a lot to be said for the words “be wise, be well.”

This article originally appeared on MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Focused on Health e-newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. To subscribe to future issues, click here.


Learning about new ways to prevent cancer (American Cancer Society)

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Your Turn

We would love to hear from you.  Do you question what you read?  When you read a story in the newspaper, magazine or online, do you wonder about the facts?  Do you ask yourself key questions (as mentioned above)?  Do you dig a little deeper or do you trust the article without questioning it?  Share your thoughts, we’d love to know what you do.


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  1. 1

    A very valuable article that every e-patient should read! Part of the problem in filtering out the misinformation is that
    physicians have lost control of the online message
    Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr Pamela Hartzband and Dr Jerome Groopman believe that “Physicians are in the best position to weigh information and advise patients, drawing on their understanding of available evidence as well as their training and experience. If anything, the wealth of information on the Internet will make such expertise and experience more essential.” We need the medical profession to step in and serve

    as interpreters of research so that patients can separate the accurate information from the increasing amount of misinforation found online.

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