How a Canadian doctor's study on dandelion tea became fake news fodder
Dr. Caroline Hamm had no idea that a passing comment by a patient would end up pulling her into an online avalanche of false testimonies about a so-called miracle cure to cancer.
"It really started with a little old lady I had in my clinic with a very high white [blood cell] count and an unusual diagnosis called myelomonocytic leukemia," said Dr Hamm, an oncologist and clinical director of the Windsor Cancer Research Group.
Three months later the patient came back with a normal white blood cell count. She attributed the positive results to drinking dandelion root tea. The remission lasted for about three months, after which the cancer returned and continued to progress.
When two other patients reported positive results after drinking the tea, Dr Hamm became interested in dandelion root tea and its cancer-fighting potential. She eventually undertook a modest study to research the plant in a clinical setting.
Wild claims about dandelion root's cancer-curing abilities began popping up all over the internet. Many linked or referenced a CBC article that appeared in 2012.
"It's just very sad that people do this. It's really unfortunate for patients that believe it. It offers false hope. That is just unkind," Dr Hamm told White Coat Black Art host Brian Goldman.
People can die if they believe that.- Dr Caroline Hamm
"It's horrible. I get emails every week from people around the world thinking they want to stop their standard medicine and take this instead because of these really unfounded claims. They can die if they believe that."
Dr. Hamm thinks it's time that the mainstream medical community starts to acknowledge the pervasiveness of fake medical news, and learn how to address it with patients. She believes that medical students should be trained to help patients think critically and how to research alternative health products.
In the meantime, she devotes much of her time telling people that what they've read or heard on the internet about dandelion root just isn't true. It's a difficult message to pass along to people who are suffering from serious cancer illness.
"We get inundated with people calling. It's a lot of work that takes us away from our patient care. It's also very hard to talk to these people. Someone's offered them false hope and you have to take it away from them. That drains you emotionally."
She says if she could do it all all over again, she would try to stay out of the news. "I just wish there was a way to get the truth out to people. Don't put all your hopes on this."