Cancer takes the lives of more than 1,500 people every day and accounts for one of every four deaths in this country.
If you're searching for information on cancer on the Internet, you're probably not up for a lot of idle browsing. You need reliable, up-to-date and comprehensive information without a lot of distracttions or medical jargon.
For five years, the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center has offered OncoLink, a pioneering effort in health care education on the Web. (The site can be reached at the addresses: http://www.oncolink.upenn.edu and http://www.oncolink.org.)
One of OncoLink's greatest strengths is as a "portal," or a one-stop site for finding cancer information on the Internet. From physical symptoms, to emotional challenges, to doctors and other providers, to the latest research, the site is patient-friendly and supportive in tone.
The advertising is visible and attractive but not overpowering.
The site is designed simply, making it quick to access and easy to navigate. One small annoyance is that several sections featured on the home page--including medical specialty menus, psychosocial support and personal experiences, and financial issues for patients--are accessible only from the home page.
OncoLink was one of the first cancer sites on the Web, created by physicians who thought the Internet was an interesting (and perhaps promising) medium through which they could better serve their patients.
Beverly Ginsburg, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania's Cancer Center, says the site's mission is to provide top-quality, up-to-date information for patients and their families, health professionals and the general public. She says that the center has not created chat rooms because it lacks the staff to monitor the rooms but that it plans to have chat rooms eventually.
While there's a lot of money in virtual health care, this site appears to have been created by doctors motivated more by empowering their patients and their families than by making a buck. Unlike other similar sites, OncoLink doesn't look as if it were created to serve as an online marketing brochure for the university's cancer center. Although there are links to the cancer clinic, Ginsburg says the site's creators wanted to keep OncoLink as a separate resource.
The site managers carefully screen all sponsors. The sponsor not only has to be acceptable, but the sponsor's Web site must also be of good quality and feature appropriate content, Ginsburg says.
As you explore the site, a great place to start is by clicking on "Disease Oriented Menus," which will take you to information on specific types of cancer, such as breast cancer or lymphoma. This section also has information about chemotherapy, fatigue, nutrition and how to manage pain and other symptoms. Like other parts of this Web site, the disease information was quite comprehensive.
The site offers a "virtual classroom," where you can listen to lectures and other programming on current cancer topics or take an introductory audio tour of the site. And if you really like using your computer's RealPlayer feature, go to "OncoLink TV" and choose from audios and videos on various cancer topics. There's an "Audio Only" option if your modem is slower than 28.8-baud modem.
OncoLink's "Clinical Trials" section connects you to information on studies sponsored by the National Cancer Institute as well as the University of Pennsylvania.
Some of the trial specifics don't mean much to the public, but at least you're able to find out about research studies that you or a loved one may be eligible for.
One of my pet peeves with many Web sites is that while they may offer a slew of links, they don't always carefully scrutinize those sites. Not so with OncoLink. Under the heading "Editor's Choice," the site lists a select few cancer links chosen by OncoLink's editorial staff. One of those links takes you to the Women's Cancer Network (http://www.wcn.org), where you will find a questionnaire that will help you determine your risk of breast, ovarian and other cancers.
As with any health site, please remember to always review the information you find with your physician. Doctors oversee this site, but cancer treatment is so individualized that I recommend asking your oncologist about any content before you act on it or give advice to others.
And finally, if you need a break from the serious content, try "OncoLink Lite," which you'll find on the home page. With its cartoons, children's stories and jokes, it's a place for cancer patients to go if they are ready to have a sense of humor about it all.
Cathy K. Purcell contributed to this column.
* Marla Bolotsky is managing editor and director of online information for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
* Your Health Online runs every other Monday in Health.