When first diagnosed with a serious disease such as skin cancer, you might be tempted to jump on your computer and spend a few hours searching for the latest research and treatments. The internet certainly offers a vast array of medical websites, personal blogs, and news stories. But with the immense amount of information out there, how do you know what to believe, what to disregard as unreliable, and what to toss out as pure fiction?
The following are tips to help you separate fact from fiction when researching skin cancer:
Consider the source. Anyone can create a website or write a blog. There isn’t any authority out there fact-checking information before it is put out for public view. To find legitimate information, look at reputable sites, such as government agencies (.gov) and universities (.edu). Other credible sources include research organizations or publications, foundations, professional societies, advocacy groups, and hospitals; most of these groups will have Internet addresses that end in .org.
Evaluate research studies. Just because a study is published doesn’t mean it’s credible. Research published in peer-reviewed journals is considered highest quality. Some well-respected peer-reviewed journals include JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Science. If you have questions about a different journal, ask a librarian or your doctor if it is a reputable source. In addition, check to see if the authors of the study have any conflicts of interest — whether, for instance, funding from a special-interest group might have influenced their findings (look at the end of the study for this information). If you aren’t sure, find out if there are any corroborating studies or whether this investigation builds on previous research. As with all medical information, approach claims with skepticism. You can check news stories and studies for validity on the watchdog site HealthNewsReview.org.
Verify the reputation of commercial (.com) sites. Look for certifications, such as those issued by the Health On the Net Foundation (HON). You’ll usually see these listed on the site’s “About Us” page or at the bottom of each page. This lets you know that the site went through a process that verified the accuracy of its medical information.
Look for the publication date. Research on skin cancer, as with other medical conditions, is often ongoing, with updates appearing regularly. Ideally, medical information, including research studies and treatment reviews, will date back no more than three years. There are always some exceptions to this; for example, an article on how to talk to your family about your diagnosis may be relatively evergreen.
Understand the role of personal stories. Reading about other people’s experiences with skin cancer can be helpful because it lets you know you aren’t alone. These articles and blog posts might give you a sense of hope. But read them with the understanding that they are personal stories and the medical advice they may offer should be verified with your doctor before you act on it. Keep in mind that not everyone experiences health problems or responds to treatment in the same way. Because the person writing the blog did or did not fare well on a particular regimen does not necessarily have any bearing on how you will respond.
Check for a “Contact Us” link or an email address for the writer. You don’t necessarily need to reach out, but if no information is available, the site might be trying to hide something.
Be wary of sites that offer a miracle cure or want you to buy an amazing remedy. If a product is as phenomenal as the site claims, your doctor will know about it. Talk to your physician before trying any potential cures or remedies you find online. Consider why the website exists. Is it there to share information or to sell a product? If the latter, be sure to verify any claims before buying.
Whenever you read information on skin cancer or any other health condition, use your critical thinking skills and common sense. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Always keep a healthy dose of skepticism and talk to your doctor before making a decision.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.