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ESMO 2018: Patients With Breast Cancer Use Twitter as a Nonmedical Forum to Share Experiences

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Key Points

  • The categorization of tweets by aim showed that the most frequent motive was patients sharing their experiences, followed closely by patient advocacy.
  • The most common subtheme was prevention (44.5% of tweets).
  • Out of the 2,559 nonmedical tweets analyzed, less than 15% contained stigmatizing statements about the disease.

Twitter is a place where many patients with cancer go to share and discuss their experiences of the disease, according to a recent exploratory study to be presented by Sánchez-Bayona et al at the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) 2018 Congress (360P_PR). The investigators analyzed the contents of over 6,000 tweets and retweets about breast cancer. 

Study author Rodrigo Sánchez-Bayona, MD, of Clinica Universidad de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, said, “Many of the patients we see in daily practice use social media to search for information about their disease, so, as care providers, we wanted to know what kind of content they find there. At the same time, the sheer volume of posts on Twitter represents a rich pool of data we can use to assess attitudes and discourses surrounding cancer.”

Analysis Methods

For this analysis, all tweets posted with the hashtag #BreastCancer over a 7-day period were collected and categorized according to their content, aim, user information, and whether they displayed a stigmatizing attitude toward breast cancer. The tweets were also grouped into four subthemes: diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, and prevention.

“This study was part of a larger, multidisciplinary project to observe the presence of different diseases on social media. In 2014, we found that cancer was the most mentioned pathology on Twitter globally. We decided to look more closely at breast cancer first, because it is one of the three most common tumors worldwide and the primary cause of cancer deaths in women,” said Dr. Sánchez-Bayona.

The data collected included 3,703 original tweets and 2,638 retweets.

Study Findings

“When examining the original tweets, we found that only one in three had medical content,” said Dr. Sánchez-Bayona. “However, 90% of this medical information was appropriate, which is likely owed to the fact that 40% of tweets came from institutions and public accounts.” The categorization of tweets by aim showed that the most frequent motive was patients sharing their experiences, followed closely by patient advocacy. The most common subtheme was prevention (44.5% of tweets).

Of the 2,559 nonmedical tweets analyzed, less than 15% contained stigmatizing statements about the disease. “The numerous breast cancer awareness campaigns over the years have certainly contributed to reducing the stigma associated with this illness,” said Dr. Sánchez-Bayona. “For many other tumors, there is still an unmet need. Going forward, we would also like to explore and compare the social media presence of different tumor types.”

He continued: “Although it would be interesting to do further research into the profiles of social media users who are the most active in the discussion about cancer, these initial findings may prove useful in themselves. In particular, advocacy organizations can draw on them to create relevant medical content and counselling about cancer that will be more accessible to users. Social media can be used as a new way of providing information on cancer prevention and health education—not just to patients, but to a much broader audience.”

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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