The “C-word” is clickbait and it can be very difficult to distinguish from legitimate news headlines, especially with regard to cancer research. It can be tough to tell what online articles are worth reading for up to the minute news and health breakthroughs. In the race for page impressions, even established news sources have taken to the practice of “optimizing” headlines to attract readers. Living in the era of “fake news,” where website revenue is often based simply upon getting enough visitors to load in a page full of advertisements, plenty of unscrupulous marketers generate hype rather than offer facts just to lure readers. And with so much misinformation circulating alongside recycled articles and outdated studies, getting to core truths is often more challenging than ever.
I recently came across an article claiming that chemotherapy statistically offered a lower life-expectancy than leaving cancer untreated, citing a very specific study. Not only was the article making claims based on out-of-context information with regard to the study, but the study itself was published over fifty years ago — yet it was being presented as cutting-edge information. While it only took me a couple of minutes to Google the study and put it into context, I realize that most people may be inclined to simply take the headline at face value and assume the article is well-researched. Sadly, this is rarely the case outside of actual medical journals and major news outlets. Even within legitimate news publications, stories are often written by people without medical or scientific backgrounds.
Tips for Sorting Through Cancer News
Here are a few tips that I use to help separate the clickbait from the legitimate news articles:
Consider the source.
If I am familiar with the publication and have found it consistently objective in the presentation of medical news, I am much more inclined to follow the link and take it seriously. Of course, if the link is directly to a medical journal, then I know it has been peer-reviewed. And if it is to a major news publication like a newspaper or an established magazine, I can assume a level of editorial oversight that will usually prevent poorly researched material from being published.
Look for hyperbolic trigger words.
If the headline proclaims a miracle cure, or even just a run-of-the-mill cure for that matter, chances are that there is more hype than substance in the linked article. Legitimate oncology rarely touts treatments as cures for cancer, though context is important to consider. A headline such as “new studies suggest possible pathway to cure for some types of lung cancer” sounds much more legitimate than one reading “new studies prove cure for lung cancer is being repressed by the FDA.”
Beware of conspiracies.
Any time I see the suggestion of Big Pharma or the government or, worse yet, the Cancer Industry / Medical Industrial Complex, preventing a cure from being made available, I feel a strong sense of skepticism toward the headline. There are good reasons for this, not the least of which is that if the article is even being published, it means that the information is already out there. And if a miracle cure existed (or even any sort of proven treatment), it would be very difficult to suppress the information.
Consider extraordinary claims.
The old saying goes that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This holds true (and for why the word proof is not a part of that saying, see the next paragraph) throughout the branches of science. If a headline is proclaiming that a doctor has cured 35,000 cancer patients and you have never heard of either the doctor or his or her special treatment, then it is safe to assume no journals have published his or her work, and none of those supposed patients was involved in a proper case study, etc., etc. Extraordinary claims do occur in real science, which is why peer review, vetting, and perhaps most importantly, repeatable experiments are all a part of the process.
Watch for the word “proof.”
Many headlines are quick to declare that scientists have proven something. But science is not about proof that something is or isn’t — science is about explaining the hows and whys. This one is also about context (proof / prove / proven are derivatives of the same hyperbolic trigger word), but generally speaking, scientific articles will consider evidence, established causation or correlation, and the results of experiments. The term “evidence” is always a good sign, not so for “proof.” That said, there are many times that the phrase “proven treatment” will show up in legitimate articles discussing things like why chemotherapy is still considered a gold-standard approach or why radiation is still recommended for some patients. Going back to the source of the article will help put the headline into context.
Of course, nothing takes the place of good old personal judgment and a willingness to do some research. Your time as a reader is valuable, so you need to make choices about what to follow and what to pass on. But rather than being merely a sponge for everything you read, after you have sifted through the headlines and made choices about what links to follow, be prepared to highlight a few key phrases or look up the sources claimed for the articles you read — sometimes, even with the best intentions and editorial oversight, journalists get things a little wrong or misunderstand the context. Headlines only ever tell us so much, and it often takes digging deeper than the article itself to get to the core truths underneath.