Cancer Rumors: What Are They and How They May Help People Cope, Make Sense of Diagnosis
A team of scientists, including UNC’s Christine Rini, PhD, reports that cancer rumors, such as the idea that one can get cancer from being in contact with a cancer patient, may affect health-related behaviors and medical decision-making.
Dr. Rini, says, “It’s common for people to share information about cancer in their conversations with family members and friends. Although we tend to trust people we care for and the information may sound right, the content of the information is not always accurate.”
The scientists surveyed 169 members of established online cancer discussion groups about informal cancer statements - cancer rumors - heard from non-medical sources. Their results are published in the June 24, 2012 online issue of the Journal of Health Communication.
Dr. Rini explains, “We have rarely documented the informal sharing of information about cancer and tend to assume that people accept the information offered through expert channels, such as their doctors, or from certain websites that we trust. We have also disregarded that individuals come to a cancer diagnosis with pre-existing beliefs and perceptions that for some people are strongly held and can be difficult to change.
“For example, some people believe that cancer is always lethal, that there’s no cure, no recovery. Such beliefs could easily influence people’s behavior in a way that may not be helpful to their emotional state or that of their loved ones at the time of diagnosis.”
The team reported that cancer rumor content focused on the lethal nature of the disease (cancer is always fatal), disease causes (agent orange, microwave ovens) the suffering associated with cancer treatment (all cancer patients lose their hair), and other issues such as the greater significance of cancer (it brings invaluable experiences), alternative cures, and cancer prevention methods.
They concluded that their findings highlight the continuing importance of non-electronic, word-of-mouth communication.
Dr. Rini says, “People should be cautious about believing what they hear about cancer, knowing that the information may not be accurate despite its emotional appeal. The best person to consult about cancer information is an expert such as a physician or nurse or a trusted website (see examples below)."
Dr. Rini is a research associate professor of health behavior in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and a member of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Other authors are from the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York; George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia; and the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa.
Funding for the study was provided by a grant from the National Science Foundation.