Twitter Widely Used Among Breast Cancer Patients

Roxanne Nelson, BSN, RN

October 12, 2018

With the increasing popularity of Twitter as a hotspot for breaking news and entertainment, it is not surprising that it has also become a source for health news and information. In addition, the social network is a place where many cancer patients share and discuss their experiences.

"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," says Rodrigo Sánchez-Bayona, MD, of Clinica Universidad de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain.

He led a study that analyzed the contents of more than 6000 tweets and retweets about breast cancer. The study will be presented as a poster at the forthcoming European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) 2018 Congress, held in Munich, Germany, October 19 - 23.

For the most part, the team found that the tweets contained "appropriate" content.

Commenting on the study for ESMO, Marina Garassino, MD, of Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori in Milan, Italy, noted that Twitter is a "high-level platform that is much more credible than other social networks like Facebook, so I was not surprised to see that the majority of the news published there are accurate."

This analysis also highlights the high number of patients who use Twitter. "We should take that as corroboration of a new reality: patients now use the Web to find information, and social media must be an integral part of our communication with them," she said.

Real-World Data Field

Twitter is one of the biggest networks worldwide, and "it establishes an enormous real-world data field of interest when studying health issues," Sanchez-Bayona commented in a statement.

For their analysis, the team collected and categorized all tweets posted with the hashtag #BreastCancer over a 7-day period. The tweets were then categorized on the basis of their content. For example, tweets were categorized as either medical or nonmedical; the medical tweets were then further subdivided as being appropriate or inappropriate. They were also categorized on the basis of user information (private account vs institution or public account), the aim of the tweet (patients' experience, relatives' experience, advertising, scientific content, fund-raising, and patient advocacy), and on the extent to which they indicated a stigmatizing attitude toward cancer.

The tweets were also divided into four additional categories: diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, and prevention.

The 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," explained Sanchez-Bayona. "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."

Mostly Appropriate and Nonmedical

A total of 6341 tweets were collected (3703 original and 2638 retweets) during the 7-day period. Of this group, 31% contained medical content, and 90% were considered to have appropriate content. The other 2559 tweets (69%) were nonmedical; of that group, 14.8% contained stigmatizing content.

Patients discussed their personal experience in 1137 tweets (30.7%) and, to a much lesser extent, that of a relative (96 tweets, 2.6%). Most tweets (60%) originated from private accounts; 40% were from institutions or public accounts. Patient advocacy accounted for 25.3% of tweets. The most common topic among subthemes was cancer prevention (44.5%).

Another common topic was treatment, which accounted for a quarter of tweets (n = 944; 25.5%), as well as advertising (n = 585, 15.8%).

The study did not receive any funding. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) 2018 Congress. Abstract 360P_PR, to be presented October 22, 2018.

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