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Finding Reliable Sources of Information on Cancer Care.

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By Nancy Hepp, with contributions from Andy Jackson, ND, Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, and Miki Scheidel.

Knowing what to trust when it comes to cancer care isn’t easy. Some sites may not be totally accurate when it comes to information about therapies, but they can be very convincing, especially if they’re trying to sell something. How can someone without a lot of medical training or research expertise tell the well-intentioned but inaccurate sites (or even the con artists) from those that you can trust?

A tool for evaluating websites

Researchers in the Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Cancer Institute published a study in late 2021 evaluating 11 websites with information about complementary medicine in cancer care.1 They used a modified version of a tool named DISCERN to evaluate each website and score it using key characteristics.

Key Characteristics for Online Health Information Resources

Aims and relevanceWhy was this site created?
Sources of informationDoes the site provide references, website hyperlinks, in text citations?
Writing, editing, reviewing processIs the process transparent?
Authors/editors qualificationsWho created and updated the information and what are their credentials/qualifications?
Up-to-date publicationsIs the information up to date, is the last updated date provided?
Additional sources of supportAre additional outside sources of support and information resources provided?
Shared decision making/complementarityDo they recommend consulting a healthcare professional and advise shared decision making?
Privacy and advertising policiesAre privacy, advertisement, financial disclosure policies stated? What do they do with your information?

We think this framework is a good tool for evaluating websites and recommend you ask some or all of these questions when you come across a site that interests you.

Red flags in claims about cancer therapies

On the other hand, a few “red flags” cause us to question the value and validity of some sites. Sites with these characteristics, and especially more than one of these, should be treated with a great deal of caution. We recommend validating any information from these sites through more transparent or authoritative sources.

Authors or sponsors are not identified or qualified

The qualifications of authors should be described. Formal education and training, experience, and independent investigation are all valid qualifications. These should be easily available to the reader. Any conflicts of interest, whether financial or organizational, should be listed for authors.

Example: The president of a company that sells supplements has authored an article claiming those supplements will make you live longer, run faster, and jump higher. That is a red flag, particularly if that conflict of interest was not overtly stated somewhere easily noticeable on the same page as the article. Those claims would require further research for verification because the author serves to profit from those claims.

Questions to answer:

  • Are all authors identified along with their credentials?
  • Do the authors have education, training, and experience that qualifies them to speak on this topic? If not, has the information been reviewed by someone who is qualified?
  • Do the authors serve to profit or somehow gain personally from your belief in the claims made in the article?

Claims are not transparent

Any claims of effectiveness should provide evidence that is accessible to the reader. Studies from peer-reviewed journals, reports from professional organizations or reputable academic or governmental agencies are generally credible, while sensational “studies” from organizations manufacturing or selling a product are suspect.

Questions to answer:

  • Is this site or person excessively critical of approaches different from theirs?
  • Does this site push their therapy to the exclusion of others?
  • Does this site or person deny any flaw or weakness in their therapy?
  • Does this site or person claim that their therapy can cure cancer?

Evidence is weak or missing

Claims without supporting evidence, or only weak evidence, are always suspect.

Questions to answer:

  • Does this person or site make only vague statements about effectiveness without any evidence?
  • Is the only source of evidence testimonials from users?
  • Are only unnamed studies used to support a therapy, without references or details?
  • Are any studies cited published in “pay to publish” journals, which will publish anything from authors, regardless of its scientific merit?
  • Does this person or site dismiss those who criticize their product or service without any evidence to refute criticisms?
  • Is the Information missing a date?

Financial ties

Websites or people who are trying to sell something have an incentive to make their product look the best that it can. Even when sales people have honorable intentions, benefits can be unconsciously promoted and potential harm downplayed. However, just because a website sells products doesn’t mean their information isn’t valid. We recommend that you check the information on a site against other highly credible sources, which we describe below.

Financial ties operate in reviews that are critical of therapies, also. If an expert is critical of a treatment, consider whether that treatment competes with another treatment that the expert is tied to financially in some way. For example, a scientist from a pharmaceutical company may criticize the claim that a complementary therapy such as a supplement can relieve pain in place of a pain medication. Again, check the information against other highly credible sources.

For websites or experts that aren’t selling products or services, check to see if they are transparent about their funding. Does the site tell you who sponsors or supports the site and information?

Further, some sites are selling completely bogus therapies that have no track record or evidence of benefit.

Questions to answer:

  • Is this person or website encouraging you to buy something?
  • Do you need to purchase the product or service to get full information?
  • Does this site or person claim to have connections to God or spiritual forces that you must pay to access?
  • Are a website’s or product’s sponsors listed?
  • Are conflicts of interest—such as an author’s or “expert’s” ties to manufacturers or organizations—listed?

Trustworthy sources of information

Some resources that we have found to be trustworthy and credible.

Conventional cancer care:

Integrative cancer care:

CancerChoices: designed for people with cancer

We invite you to evaluate the site for trustworthiness and credibility. Our pilot site (BCCT) was one of the 11 sites evaluated in the study described at the beginning of this post. The researchers rated BCCT at 4.9/5, the highest score given to any of the sites evaluated.

Our Reviews of Complementary Therapies are designed to help readers without training in medicine or research make sense of thousands of studies about the use of therapies in cancer care, even when studies have conflicting results. In addition to being trustworthy and credible, we also design our pages to be helpful and understandable for people with cancer. We’ll pick up that topic in our post next month.

  1. Sansevere ME, White JD. Quality assessment of online complementary and alternative medicine information resources relevant to cancer. Integrative Cancer Therapies. 2021 Jan-Dec; 20:15347354211066081.
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