Twitter is a place where many cancer patients go to share and discuss their experiences of the disease. This is the main finding of a recent exploratory study, to be presented at the ESMO 2018 Congress in Munich, which analysed the contents of over 6,000 tweets and retweets about breast cancer.
Social media today have become an echo chamber in which every societal issue is reverberated many times over - including cancer. Study author Dr. Rodrigo Sanchez-Bayona 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."
For this analysis, all tweets posted with the hashtag #BreastCancer over a seven-day period were collected and categorised according to their content, aim, user information and whether they displayed a stigmatising attitude towards 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 tumours worldwide and the primary cause of cancer deaths in women."
The data collected included 3,703 original tweets and 2,638 retweets. "When examining the original tweets, we found that only one in three had medical content," said Sanchez-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 categorisation of tweets by aim showed that the most frequent motive was patients sharing their experiences, followed closely by patient advocacy. The most common subtheme by far was prevention (44.5% of tweets).