Cancer patients undergoing active treatment may be more vulnerable to misinformation related to COVID-19

According to a new study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University, cancer patients on active treatment were more likely to believe misinformation related to COVID-19 than those without a history of cancer.

These findings help us better understand the threat of COVID-19 misinformation in an already vulnerable population. Understanding who is most likely to believe certain types of misinformation allows us to better understand why this is the case, which in turn can help us address this troubling issue.”

Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D., main author, Assistant Professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, Director of the Media + Health Lab at VCU, and Member of the Cancer Prevention and Control Research Program at VCU Massey Cancer Center

The study, “Endorsement of COVID-19 Related Misinformation Among Cancer Survivors,” was published in the journal Patient Education and Counseling.

Guidry and his colleagues conducted a survey of 897 adults, of whom about a third are undergoing cancer treatment, a third of cancer survivors are not currently in treatment and a third of respondents have no history of cancer. They found that cancer patients currently undergoing treatment were more likely to believe misinformation about COVID-19 than the other two groups. Cancer survivors who are no longer in treatment are the least likely to endorse misinformation about COVID-19.

“These results highlight that, compared to healthy adults without cancer, cancer survivors currently in treatment may be more vulnerable to misinformation related to COVID-19, while those no longer in treatment are less vulnerable,” the researchers wrote.

Why are cancer patients more likely to endorse misinformation about COVID-19? The reasons aren’t entirely clear, the researchers say.

“Survivors currently on treatment may have heightened anxiety about the impact of the current pandemic on their course of survival, leading them to seek more information on the internet or through social media where they are more exposed to misinformation,” they wrote. “Increased retrieval of information may impact the information-processing abilities of cancer patients, making them more likely to use heuristics or cues, rather than more critical central processing pathways to assess the credibility of the information.

The study also found that cancer survivors who are no longer in treatment may have more experience assessing the veracity of information they read online.

“Our cancer survivors, they’ve been through this journey and come out the other side knowing you can’t believe everything you read on the internet – they know you need to talk to your doctor and other people who experience these issues,” said the study’s lead author, Bernard Fuemmeler, Ph.D., associate director of population sciences and Gordon D. Ginder, MD, chair of cancer research at the VCU Massey Cancer Center as well as Professor of Behavior and Health Policy at the VCU School of Medicine.

The findings build on a previous study by the researchers which found that parents of children with cancer were more likely to believe misinformation and unverifiable content associated with COVID-19 than parents of children without a history of cancer. .

Our previous study found that parents of pediatric cancer patients were more likely to consider misinformation about COVID-19 to be true than parents of children with no history of cancer. While neither of these groups were random population samples, and therefore the findings cannot be generalized, this is still concerning because these are both vulnerable groups, likely already under stress due to the diagnoses of cancer.

Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D., lead author

The results of the new study suggest that oncologists and other providers working with patients undergoing cancer treatment should be aware of patients’ potential sensitivity to misinformation and should help address patient concerns about the pandemic and its connection to their treatment.

Cancer patients are in a uniquely vulnerable position, and it is our duty as healthcare providers to help them overcome the ‘infodemic’ of misinformation so they can achieve the best possible outcomes. under these difficult circumstances,” said study co-author Robert Winn, MD, Director and Lipman Chair in Oncology at VCU Massey Cancer Center and Senior Associate Dean for Oncology Innovation at the VCU School of Medicine.

The data for the new study was collected before the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines. However, Guidry said, the results are relevant today.

“So far, COVID-19 vaccines and boosters have been very successful in preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19, but infection with the virus and its variants is still possible, and misinformation on the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 is still spreading rapidly, both online and in person,” she said. “To what extent specific, already vulnerable groups may be susceptible to these types misinformation remains relevant, both for the remainder of this pandemic as well as for future public health emergencies.”


Virginia Commonwealth University

Journal reference:

Guidry, JPD, et al. (2022) Endorsement of COVID-19-related misinformation among cancer survivors. Patient education and counseling.

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