Patients With Cancer Comforted by Online Forums

Fran Lowry

December 07, 2016

Both television and the Internet are used as sources of information by people newly diagnosed with cancer; however, television often makes them fearful, whereas online forums that put them in contact with their peers give them a sense of support and comfort, according to a new study published in the Journal of Cancer Education.

"Experts, be they medical doctors, public health officials, or in government or university, tend to focus on providing correct information for people with serious illness, such as cancer," coauthor Jan Van den Bulck, PhD, professor of media science, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, told Medscape Medical News.

Dr Jan Van den Bulck

"That's a big issue, obviously, but there is a big emotional side to the question that is harder to deal with because it is more intangible. Giving people information is only part of the story. They are looking for support. They want to learn how to deal with their emotions, and they are very interested in how other people respond," Dr Van den Bulck said.

"Cancer is a very powerful storyline in TV shows and in movies. In the forums you get people who have the same struggle with the same issues and tell their personal stories, whereas if you are watching medical fiction, it's going to be a completely different approach to the illness. It's going to be more dramatic, the storylines are going to be suspenseful to hold viewers' attention," he continued.

If you are thinking about supporting patients, giving them information is not the whole story. Dr Jan Van den Bulck

"If you are thinking about supporting patients, giving them information is not the whole story. The forums on the Internet may not necessarily be giving correct information, but people seem to get a lot of support from the simple fact that other people have to deal with the same or similar issues. To me that is a major thing. Let's not be focused only on the information; there is also the support side," he said.

Study Details

For their study, Dr Van den Bulck and colleagues conducted a cross-sectional survey of 621 individuals diagnosed with cancer in Flanders, Belgium, to determine their information-seeking behavior.

Respondents were contacted through Dutch-speaking cancer forums and cancer self-help groups in Flanders, as well as while they were in waiting rooms at oncology clinics.

Information about sex, age, and highest educational degree was obtained, and respondents were also asked to rate their perceived health.

They then were asked how frequently they followed stories of peers through the following media content categories: informative websites, forums, blogs, scientific websites, informative television programs, entertainment television programs, and medical drama.

Respondents also had to indicate whether they felt fearful, concerned, hopeful, or supported after following the stories of their peers.

Respondents' mean age was 54 years (range, 18 to 84 years). Most (74%) were female, 21% had no educational degree, 32% had a high school diploma, 35% had a college degree, and 12% had finished university.

The survey showed that most of the respondents followed peer stories through informative websites, scientific websites, and informative television programs.

Both the Internet and television were used to access peer stories. Participants were more likely to look for peer stories in informative television programs than in entertainment and medical drama programs.

The survey also revealed that female patients with cancer were significantly more likely to follow peer stories on forums, blogs, scientific websites, and informative television programs than were male patients.

Participants who were younger and had lower levels of education were significantly more likely to follow peer stories from entertainment programs and medical drama than were those who were older or who had a higher level of educational attainment.

Following peer stories on online forums was associated with feeling supported, whereas following peer stories on entertainment television resulted in respondents feeling fearful and concerned.

The study was funded by the Research Foundation – Flanders. Dr Van den Bulck has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

J Cancer Educ. Published online November 3, 2016. Abstract

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