After a cancer diagnosis, there are many decisions to be made, from choosing a care team to settling on a treatment. At some point between the consultations and tests, people with cancer are likely to give in to the urge to consult Dr. Google and search for information about their illness online.
Chasity Walters, Director of Patient and Caregiver Education at Memorial Sloan Kettering, points out that there are many benefits to this type of information gathering. The bounty of online information allows more people to take an active role in managing their care or the treatment of a loved one.
At some point between the consultations and tests, people with cancer probably give in to the urge to consult Dr. Google.
But there are also pitfalls, Dr. Walters points out, including an abundance of inaccurate, misleading, or out-of-date information that can be daunting to sort through. A search for breast cancer alone churns out 95 million results.
Also, the emotional toll — reading about grueling side effects or poor survival rates — can contribute to unhelpful feelings of fear and hopelessness. Some doctors, like Mario Leitao, Jr., a gynecologic oncologist and specialist in rare gynecologic cancers at MSK, even suggest that patients completely avoid searching for their disease online.
“If you search for a cancer online, you are going to find information from various time points, and you often won’t be able to tell when that information is from,” Dr. Leitao says. “Treatments and outcomes change over time. And statistics are only averages. Every patient is unique.”
But the reality is that we are a nation of Googlers, especially when it comes to our health. Dr. Walters offers these five tips to guide your search, if you choose to go online to research your diagnosis.
Rely on the websites of expert health organizations. MSK maintains a virtual library that includes more than 4,100 curated, searchable documents, all of which have been vetted by our education specialists and expert clinicians. MSK also provides a curated Google search of websites that we trust and have reviewed for reliability and accuracy.
Check the About Us section of sites. “It’s a red flag if a website doesn’t have an About Us section,” says Dr. Walters. This area should tell you who runs the website and offer clues about the organization’s qualifications and whether or not it has a commercial agenda, such as selling a product or drug.
Be cautious of websites that promise breakthroughs your doctor hasn’t told you about. There aren’t a lot of secrets in cancer treatment. If a treatment is proven safe and effective, chances are that major health organizations will be aware of it. If you’re considering using an herb or vitamin supplement that you’ve heard about, MSK’s About Herbs database offers objective, evidence-based information.
Look for dates. Cancer care and survival rates continually evolve. Before deciding how much weight to give online information, try to identify when it was posted, or when the data that’s being cited was collected.
Communicate with your care team about concerns and questions. “It’s important to partner with your cancer treatment team,” Dr. Walters says. “Your caregivers know the most about you from a medical perspective, and they can help you interpret what you find and how it relates to you specifically.”