Why does Dr. Google love cancer?

On one fine morning you wake up with a mild fever or a headache and decide to check with your best friend google because she knows best. But alas, you have cancer! Or it could be an aneurysm that’s right about to give you a stroke, either way you don’t have much time to live.
So, why does every symptom you search on google end up with you having cancer? Well, it’s not completely Google’s fault. Most cancers, regardless of being fearsome and serious conditions, initially appear with very subtle symptoms like unexplained weight loss, night sweats, pain, loss of appetite, fever and irregular bowel habits, and as you may know, most of these symptoms are pretty common in other diseases too. So, search engines that give your results based on a combination of word sequences show you all the possibilities among which cancer could be one.

We also need to consider the differences between asking google and real life doctors. Symptom checker sites on the internet do not ask all the questions about your other associated symptoms. They choose one main symptom and give you a list of diagnoses. In addition, the way symptom checkers ask questions may also be an issue. For instance, it is often asked if someone’s headache is the worst headache of their life, and usually they agree with this. It’s not that they are lying, but due to normal human behaviour they want to agree on the statement, especially if it is a leading question. However, simply rephrasing the question could make things much better. “When was the last time you had a headache this bad?” Is a good way to inquire about the same information.

The internet is very accessible and manipulable. Anyone could write anything and publish on the internet, but that does not make it true. Searching the right and reliable sources is of utmost importance when it comes to things like this where false self-diagnosis could make you very anxious. There are many incidents where such thoughts have resulted in astonishingly high hospital bills on doing unnecessary tests because patients think they have cancer.

So, apart from the hysteria created by such diagnosis, is there any bright side to this? Well, early diagnosis of cancer is one of the factors that could give a very positive prognosis for any cancer. For conditions like breast cancer, although a lump in breast could mean many other things such as fibrocystic changes or fat necrosis, it is an increasingly common practice to visit the doctor due to the enhanced awareness that breast lumps could cause cancer. We got to give the internet some credit for this, right? This could potentially raise the chances of diagnosis at an early stage and increase the survival rate.
I believe that in the future, much accurate and reliable symptom checkers will be introduced that could collate symptoms together and give more common diagnoses. Meanwhile, we have to bear in mind why the internet shows such results in every search and why they are mostly wrong.

by Yoosuf Yaeesh Ibrahim

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