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Harvard Health Researchers Launch Website to Dispel Cancer Misinformation

Researchers at Harvard's School of Public Health and the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center launched a website to combat cancer misinformation.
Researchers at Harvard's School of Public Health and the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center launched a website to combat cancer misinformation. By Zadoc I.N. Gee
By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen, Emily Y. Feng, and Dorcas Y. Gadri, Contributing Writers

Harvard and Dana-Farber researchers launched a website called Cancer FactFinder, which aims to provide vetted information about the causes of cancer, on this year’s World Health Day, April 7.

The project — led by Harvard School of Public Health professor Timothy R. Rebbeck — began as a joint effort between his school’s Zhu Family Center for Global Cancer Prevention and the Center for Cancer Equity and Engagement at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center.

Cancer FactFinder synthesizes “the best scientific evidence-based information available from studies in humans” to remedy misconceptions about cancer, according to the site’s homepage.

Rebbeck, who serves as the director of Zhu Family Center, said in an interview the site’s goal is “to empower people to start making better choices.”

Upon reaching the site, a visitor can learn about possible cancer risk factors using the search function. Potential causes fall into six main categories — consumer products, diet and nutrition, lifestyle, medical exposures and procedures, occupational and environmental exposure, and other exposures.

Color-coded symbols indicate whether sufficient evidence exists to support each cause, with a green circle denoting “most likely or definitely true,” a red circle for “false/misinformation,” and a gray circle for “we’re not sure yet.”

For each topic, the site also presents common claims, relevant scientific findings, and methods of risk reduction.

Mingyang Song, an epidemiology professor at the School of Public Health who worked on the project, characterized the process of labeling risk factors as “evolving.”

“When we make the judgment, we try to be very, very cautious,” Song said. “Science is a moving field.”

Lorelai A. Mucci, an epidemiology professor at the School of Public Health and project collaborator, said Cancer FactFinder aims to combat “fatigue” surrounding conflicting cancer information.

“Things like this, the Cancer FactFinder, are important because people can often get fatigued in hearing about things that are bad for them — to the point where they’re like, ‘I don’t believe anything, and I’m just gonna do whatever,’” Mucci said.

Rebbeck said local health advocates are an integral part of the Cancer FactFinder team.

“A lot of times, we in academia or in the hospital medical care system, think we know a lot that [is] going on,” Rebbeck said. “But we don’t always know, first of all, what people need to hear and how they need to hear it — what kinds of messages are useful or not useful.”

“Therefore, we needed to include a broad audience in the design and capture of the information,” Rebbeck added.

Lydia Conley, the Zhu Family Center’s administrative director, said the team will share Cancer FactFinder with government organizations and health care centers as an informational resource.

Rebbeck said he hopes to pursue additional public programming to help Cancer FactFinder reach a greater audience.

“If you can find a spot that has the information that is accurate and believable, then that’s a starting point. It’s not, by any means, the end point,” Rebbeck said. “The second point is how you get people to listen — and that is a much bigger activity.”

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