Patient Beware

Cancer information may suffer when the medical mainstream “tidies up” Wikipedia

Wiki warning

How crazy is this?

If you Google “lung cancer,” what website appears at the top of the list?

No, it’s not And it’s not the Mayo Clinic lung cancer page. It’s not even WebMD or MedicineNet.

What comes up first in the queue? The lung cancer page for Wikipedia — the website that can be edited by anyone who visits the site.

At first glance, that may seem like a good thing. If someone spots an error, they can correct it. But if you’re looking for accurate, unbiased health information, that could be a big problem.

Less than reassuring

When officials at Cancer Research UK became frustrated that Wikipedia’s cancer pages always appeared higher in search results than their own website, they came up with a Trojan Horse solution.

Instead of leaving Wikipedia’s cancer information to chance, they dispatched their own experts to monitor and “tidy up” Wikipedia with necessary edits. That way, they could be sure that the thousands, maybe millions of cancer patients would find sound information when they visited the pages.

Now, that might be very reassuring to many, but I’m not reassured at all — just the opposite!

Cancer Research UK is Britain’s counterpart to the American Cancer Society. Put another way: They’re seriously mainstream.

It’s impossible to go to the editing section of a Wikipedia cancer page and figure out what edits might have been made by a Cancer Research UK “expert.” But we can find clues to CR’s attitude toward alternative therapies with a quick search.

But not a Google search — a Cancer Research UK search.

On the CR website I searched the phrase “ascorbic acid,” to see if there was any mention of using vitamin C in intravenous mega-doses to treat cancer.

Instead, I found a 2008 article about a laboratory study that indicated vitamin C might reduce the effectiveness of cancer drugs.

And that sums up Cancer Research UK’s COMPLETE coverage of ascorbic acid.

Meanwhile, in 2007, I told you about a review of 19 clinical trials that showed how the use of antioxidant supplements (including vitamin C, of course) actually appeared to BOOST chemo effectiveness, increasing survival time and tumor responses.

So given the choice between a single lab trial or 19 trials with human subjects, Cancer Research UK went with the lab trial, which would discourage cancer patients from using antioxidant supplements.

That gives you a good idea of who’s out there “tidying up” Wikipedia’s cancer pages.

Yesterday I told you about patient advocacy groups and how they’re often influenced by huge donations from drug companies and other corporations. And the advice there also applies to using Wikipedia for cancer information…

Browser beware.

“Cancer charity tidies up Wikipedia” New Scientist, 4/7/11,