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BC Cancer and BCCDC scientist launches study on misinformation

A grant from the Canadian Cancer Society will help Dr. Cheryl Peters and her colleagues in B.C. and Alberta study cancer misinformation online and ultimately aim to reduce cancer incidence rates in Canada.
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Dr. Cheryl Peters, a senior scientist in cancer prevention at BC Cancer and the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), is launching an exciting public health project called Combating online misinformation about cancer causes and prevention.

Dr. Peters and her team based out of the University of British Columbia (UBC) were recently awarded over $517,000 in research funding, as successful applicants for a Canadian Cancer Society challenge grant. They'll be studying how people in Canada get cancer prevention information online and looking at ways to ensure Canadians get that information from reliable, evidence-based sources.

"Outside of tobacco and the sun, people don't really know what causes cancer," says Dr. Peters. 

"I'm really excited that we're going to be working in the cancer prevention space, but also looking to understand access to treatment and how misinformation can impact the patient journey."

Dr. Peters' co-investigators are professor Timothy Caulfield, research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta, and Dr. Lin Yang with the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services. The group is teaming up with other researchers in Alberta and B.C., as well as the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS).

Debunking myths

The new research builds on the group’s recently published work Canadians' knowledge of cancer risk factors and belief in cancer myths, a joint effort with CCS and CAREX Canada to compile data and survey results on commonly held beliefs about cancer risks. 

The previous study found most people know that smoking and over exposure to the sun cause cancer and that physical activity and eating fruits and vegetables can positively impact your health. However, only 60 per cent of Canadians knew that HPV vaccines prevent cancer. And while most people know that alcohol causes cancer, many continue to believe that red wine is healthier than other types of alcohol. From a cancer prevention perspective, Dr. Peters says that’s simply not true. 

"Through our work with Dr. Peters and CAREX, we were able to gain an important understanding of Canadians' awareness, attitudes and behaviours towards cancer prevention," says Elizabeth Holmes, director of Health Policy for CCS.  "The findings give us insight into what risks people can identify and which myths they believe, so we can adapt our cancer prevention messaging accordingly."

Holmes says the team looks forward to building on that knowledge with the new study, to actively combat cancer misinformation online and ultimately help reduce cancer incidence rates in Canada.

The misinformation project will take a deeper dive, beginning with another survey before shifting to organized focus groups where participants will discuss prevailing cancer myths and where they come from. One of the project’s main deliverables is a customizable digital strategy that patient advocacy groups, oncologists and other support networks will be able to use for cancer prevention and treatment. 

"There is growing recognition that health misinformation is doing great harm, including in the cancer space," says Caulfield. "I don’t think it's an overstatement to say it is killing people." 

Developing tools for those seeking treatment

Caulfield says two prime examples of the impact of misinformation are increasing vaccine hesitancy and a tendency to embrace unproven therapies. He adds that the spread of misinformation can also lead to distrust of science-informed health care. 

Dr. Peters says another area they'll be looking into is advertising, such as paid promotions of alternative treatments marketed to recently diagnosed cancer patients on platforms like Amazon Marketplace and social media networks. 

"We want to develop tools that can support cancer patients and their caregivers as they navigate through the treatment process, while still leaving space for patients to pursue other treatments that may benefit them culturally, spiritually and emotionally," says Dr. Peters.

Dr. Peters' team received ethics approval at the end of March and has started creating an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion panel to make sure their research includes a wide range of voices from all social demographics and cultural backgrounds.

"We need to do some work to prioritize who this research is for and who can benefit from it the most," she says, explaining that she envisions it becoming a valuable resource for patient groups and folks who work in science education, advocacy and health literacy. 

The project will be rolled out over the next three years. Dr. Peters plans to publish several manuscripts along the way and aims for a final publication by 2027. 

Did you know that nearly half of people in Canada are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime? Learn more about preventing cancer. 

Story courtesy of the BC Centre for Disease Control.

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