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Cancer patients likely to believe COVID-19 misinformation

Feb 14, 2022

Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D.

We’ve all heard them. Conspiracy theories and rumors about COVID-19 are rampant on the internet, and while some are relatively harmless, such as the belief that drinking water frequently will stave off infection, others are more dangerous, sowing seeds of mistrust in vaccines or leading people to swallow dangerous chemicals, such as the horse de-wormer ivermectin.

Using survey data from hundreds of people around the country, researchers at VCU Massey Cancer Center found that cancer patients in active treatment are more likely to believe COVID-19 misinformation than people with no cancer history. Cancer survivors who are no longer in treatment were the least likely group to fall for these false claims.

“COVID is the first pandemic taking place in the social media era,” said study lead author Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D., a member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program at Massey. “Social media makes everyone into producers, into content creators, often just by forwarding messages with a comment – and frequently it’s misinformation that is spread.”

Guidry and her collaborators used online survey data from about 900 people who were asked in June 2020 whether they agreed with each of 21 false statements about COVID-19. A third of the participants were cancer patients in active treatment, a third were cancer survivors not in active treatment and a third had no cancer history.

Survey questions spanned the spectrum of common COVID-19 myths making the rounds in 2020, including the fear that 5G mobile networks spread and worsen COVID-19 and that COVID-19 vaccines contain a microchip.

In addition to the main finding that cancer patients were more likely to believe COVID-19 misinformation than survivors or non-patients, the researchers also found that older people and women were less likely to believe in pandemic-related rumors, compared to younger people – who tend to be heavier users of social media – and men. Importantly, age, gender and other demographic factors could not fully account for the results.

Although the researchers can’t say for sure why cancer patients seem more susceptible to COVID-19 misinformation while cancer survivors seem somewhat immune, they do have some theories.

“What we’re thinking is that if you’re undergoing cancer treatment you may have a heightened level of anxiety and be looking for information on the internet, so you’re more exposed to misinformation,” said Guidry, who is also an assistant professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences and director of the Media+Health Lab at VCU.

On the other hand, cancer survivors who are no longer in treatment may have more experience evaluating the veracity of information they read online.

“Our cancer survivors, they’ve gone through this journey and come out the other end, knowing you can’t believe everything you read on the internet – they know you have to talk to your doctor and other people who are knowledgeable about these issues,” said study senior author Bernard Fuemmeler, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate director for population science and Gordon D. Ginder, M.D., Chair in Cancer Research at VCU Massey Cancer Center as well as professor of health behavior and policy at the VCU School of Medicine.

This study complements an earlier paper from the same group, showing that parents of children with cancer are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 misinformation, which reinforces the idea that being in the stressful position of navigating cancer treatment leaves people open to being misled.

According to the authors, one solution is to “vaccinate” against misinformation. By intentionally exposing people to dubious claims, clearly labeled as bunk, before they grab a foothold in popular consciousness, it’s possible to build “immunity” so that people are less likely to believe misinformation when encountered in the wild.

The researchers also note that it's important for doctors, especially oncologists, to invite questions from their patients about how the pandemic – or the vaccines that could end it – may affect their treatment, so that these patients can base their health decisions on the highest-quality information.

“Cancer patients are in an especially vulnerable position, and it’s our duty as health care providers to help them weather the ‘infodemic’ of misinformation so they can have the best possible outcome under these challenging circumstances,” said study co-author Robert A. Winn, M.D., director and Lipman Chair in Oncology at VCU Massey Cancer Center and senior associate dean for cancer innovation at the VCU School of Medicine.

Although the data for this latest paper was collected before the roll out of COVID-19 vaccines, Guidry says the findings are relevant to the misinformation that’s still making the rounds today, which has slowed the uptake of vaccines, prolonged the pandemic and allowed variants to emerge as the virus continues to circulate widely. 

“The COVID-19 vaccines and boosters so far have been very successful in preventing severe disease and mortality, but infection with the virus and its variants is still a possibility, and misinformation about COVID-19 prevention and treatment is still spreading quickly, both online and in person,” Guidry said.

Right now, Guidry’s team is developing a program to help patients, both at VCU Health and beyond, make decisions about vaccines and boosters using the latest scientific evidence as a guide.

Since the start of the pandemic, Massey has been addressing COVID misinformation though the Facts & Faith Fridays program, led by Winn alongside local community activist and cancer survivor Rudene Mercer Haynes and Fifth Street Baptist Church pastor F. Todd Gray.

Nearly every Friday since March 2020, Winn, Haynes, Gray and a cadre of guest speakers – including President Biden’s chief medical advisor Tony Fauci, M.D. – have met virtually with local faith leaders to share the latest COVID-19 public health advice.

Recently, Facts & Faith added a segment called “myth busters,” where Massey researcher Katherine Tossas, Ph.D., hops on the Zoom to share an emerging COVID-19 rumor and explain why it’s untrue – a misinformation vaccine in action.

Additional authors on the study include Kellie Carlyle, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the VCU School of Medicine; Carrie Miller, Ph.D., M.P.H., and Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D., of the VCU School of Medicine and VCU Massey Cancer Center; and Albert Ksinan, Ph.D., of Masaryk University.

This research was supported by the National Cancer Institute (grants 2T32CA093423 and P30 CA016059). Funding for the development of Guidry’s COVID-19 decision tool for patients was provided by VCU Health.

Written by: Erin Hare, Ph.D.

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