How Social Media Helps Breast Cancer Patients

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Posting on Facebook can't exactly cure cancer, but it might actually help. A recent study at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center measured the effects of online communication in breast cancer patients. The results, published in JAMA Oncology last week, show that for some women, sharing their experiences can actually help them feel more deliberate about their treatment decisions and more satisfied with their choices.

Of the women surveyed, 41% said that they communicated online at least sometimes, including texting and emailing as well as Facebook, Twitter, etc. — the mean age of these patients was 61.9, after all, so they probably weren't the most active Snapchatters. Usage was much more common among younger, more educated, and white patients than in patients of color and older women.

"Email and texting were primarily to let people know they had been diagnosed," Lauren P. Wallner, an assistant professor of medicine at the UM and the study's lead author, said in a press release. "They tended to use social media sites and web-based support groups to interact about treatment options and physician recommendations. Women also reported using all of these outlets to deal with the negative emotions and stress around their breast cancer diagnosis. They're using these communications to cope."
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The women who said they frequently communicated in this way reported more positive feelings about their treatment decisions. Sharing literally made them feel better (though not necessarily physically). That's not to say doctors should be prescribing Instagram accounts to their patients just yet.

"We don't know a lot about the type of information women are finding online," Wallner said, we can only assume alluding to the way social media can be as much a source of unscientifically based anecdotes as of real facts. "What are they sharing and what is the quality of that information? We need to understand that before we can really harness the potential of social media to better support patients through their cancer treatment and care."
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