Tumour-sniffing pets and social media snake oil: Cancer patients prey to dodgy myths

Dangerous cancer myths have taken root in Australia, with Cancer Council data showing too many people believing misinformation spread on social media.

Almost two-thirds of people believed animals could sniff out cancer and two in five thought cancer could be cured by alternative therapies that have no scientific backing.

The COVID pandemic created a perfect storm of misinformation: a reliance on digital technology to stay informed with health information, and heightened anxieties. Credit:iStock

The survey of 1000 Australians from 18 to over 76 years old, commissioned by the Cancer Council, found nearly half of respondents believed sunscreen contained chemicals that were bad for you and 8 per cent didn’t realise you didn’t need to burn to get skin cancer.

One in five Australians said they were likely to have changed their behaviour based on something they read online (including 14 per cent due to a story they read on social media) – the same proportion that would do so based on government information, according to the survey results released on World Cancer Day.

Megan Varlow, Director of Cancer Control Policy at the Cancer Council said the COVID pandemic created a perfect storm of misinformation for vulnerable people with cancer: a reliance on digital technology to stay informed with health information, and heightened anxieties.

“People are usually divided into two camps: one group carefully checks their sources are reputable, and the other group take everything they read as truth and don’t consider the source at all,” Ms Varlow said.

More than one in 10 believed social media or articles on the internet were the most trustworthy sources of health information.

Then there are disreputable players looking to sell snake oil products and miracle cures, Ms Varlow said.

An estimated 145,483 people were diagnosed and 48,099 people died of cancers in Australia in 2020, Cancer Australia data shows.

One of the most misleading myths of modern medicine that led to the rise of unproven, alternative cancer treatments was the view that conventional cancer doctors reject ‘natural’ therapies in favour of artificial or “unnatural” cancer treatments, Ms Varlow said.

“Cancer clinicians have been leaders in considering how complementary therapies can be helpful in cancer, particularly for improving side effects and there are lots of cancer centres with dedicated spaces and clinicians that provide complementary therapies,” Ms Varlow said.

Sunscreen must pass strict tests before it can be sold in Australia. Credit:iStock

But rather than managing nausea with complementary therapies, “some people were choosing to completely throw conventional therapy out the window in favour of natural therapies that have minimal evidence behind them.

“We’ve also seen a rise in companies touting “natural alternatives” as safer when in fact we can be assured that any products that are available in Australia, from sunscreen to modern medicine have met stringent guidelines to ensure they are safe and effective,” she said.

The misinformation about skin cancer risk and sunscreen was particularly concerning for the Cancer Council, considering UV levels in Australia are frequently extreme and sun damage can occur in just a few minutes.

“Sunscreen sold in Australia should be approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) which means they have met some of the most stringent criteria in the world to ensure they are safe and effective,” Ms Varlow said.

“Sunscreen marketed as a “safer” alternative to a regular sunscreen may not have been tested by the TGA, so it is impossible to know if they are safe or provide the protection stated on the bottle,” she said.

Too many Australians did not realise it was possible to develop skin cancer even if you don’t burn.Credit:AFR

As for animal being able to sniff out cancer, “studies have so far been limited and you’re best to seek the advice of your doctor rather than your furry friend if you’re concerned,” Ms Varlow said.

The Cancer Council’s ‘iHeard’ webpage interrogates some of the most common myths and questions asked by the public.

Over a seven day period in December 2020, the top three searches on iHeard were: ‘Latops give you cancer’ (14,024 new users), ‘Laser hair removal can cause cancer’ (5,415 new users) and ‘Is gumbi gumbi [a plant-based alternative therapy] effective in treating cancer?’ (4,847 users).

“Some people think gumbi gumbi cures cancer but there is zero evidence it makes a difference,” Ms Varlow said.

“Dealing with a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and there can be an information overload. What is crucial is that we are seeking information from trusted sources like medical practitioners, the government or trusted charities and health organisations,” Ms Varlow said.

The Cancer Council’s website provides additional information about cancer risks, causes and treatments, and its 13 11 20 information and support line is available to help those affected by cancer and their loved ones.

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