Kenneth L Abbott, MD, FACP  |  3/16/2022

Cancer and the Telephone Game

Raise your hand if you have ever played the “telephone game.” Form a line or circle with a sizeable group of people—a dozen or so, at least—and hand the first person a modestly complicated sentence. This person whispers the sentence to her neighbor, who in turn whispers the sentence to his neighbor, and so on until the last person receives the sentence and says it out loud to the group, usually followed by peals of laughter at how ridiculously garbled the message became as it was passed along. Grade school teachers have used the game as a fun way of demonstrating the pitfalls of human communication. The players learn that we often don’t listen well, we can be careless and inaccurate in handling information, we frequently cover embarrassment over poor comprehension by embellishing or augmenting what we say, and the further away information gets from its original source the less trustworthy it may be.

Today, there is a more sophisticated, but no less hazardous, way of obtaining and handling information about cancer: electronic media. Whether you search the internet or follow someone on a social media site, you should be aware of the risk of being misinformed. Having low-quality, unreliable, flat-out wrong information about cancer can lead to poor decision-making and adverse effects on treatment. Worse than just mistaken, this “knowledge” is harmful. Malinformation is a better term for it.

How do you go about reducing your risk of being malinformed? A few pointers:

Check the currency of the article you’re reading, if it bears a date. Some information about cancer ages well, but much does not because of the rapid pace of medical research and publication.

If the article has the name of the author, find out what you can about that person’s credentials. Does he or she have the necessary background and knowledge base to be credible?

Read the entire article carefully, not just the headlines or the lede. Details are important. They may not appear until well into the body of the text. If citations or links accompany the article, take the time to check those as well.

Evaluate the site itself. What is its purpose in posting the article? Does it advance a particular point of view? Is there an interest in selling a product that may introduce bias?

Note the style of writing. You can distinguish a professional, straightforward piece intended to educate from one seeking to provoke a response or to entertain. Look for mistakes in spelling and grammar. Sloppiness in writing often warns the reader against sloppiness in information.

I don’t mean to impugn people who use and contribute to social media sites, but you should treat this material as you would gossip. Verify everything before acting on it.

Finally, double-check what you have learned with your cancer care provider. That person occupies the best position to guide you in your quest to make good decisions.
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