Talking Online Boosts Confidence in Breast Cancer Treatment

Talking Online Boosts Confidence in Breast Cancer Treatment
Social media applications such as these can help boost confidence in breast cancer treatment decisions. Photo courtesy

Many women take to Facebook to discuss their daily lives with friends, and it seems this support network may have a medical benefit. A new study has found that when women take to social media or other online communications after a breast cancer diagnosis, it can boost their confidence in treatment decisions.

The study comes from Lauren P. Wallner, Ph.D., MPH, assistant professor of general medicine, and other researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School. The study authors published their findings in the July 28th issue of the journal JAMA Oncology. The authors believed that online communication could help women who were newly diagnosed with breast cancer, so they set out to find out how many women use these resources and how communicating online affects their treatment decisions.

The study involved 2,460 women in the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) registries in Georgia and Los Angeles County. These women were between the ages of 20 and 79 years old and had recently received a breast cancer diagnosis between July 2013 and September 2014. Six months after their diagnosis, researchers asked the women about their treatment experience, including satisfaction with their treatment choices, and their online communication use. These online communications included email, texting, online support groups, and social media such as blogs, Twitter, and Facebook.

The researchers discovered that fewer than half the women, 1,002 in all, frequently used any type of online communication. Most that did emailed or texted others, at 34.7 percent, while only 12.3 percent of the women used social media and 11.9 participated in internet-based breast cancer support groups. Women who were younger and had more education tended to use online communication more than their peers, and women who were white or Asian tended to use these tools more than women who were black or Latina.

The women in the study said their primary reason for using email and text messaging was to inform their friends and family of their breast cancer diagnosis. In contrast, women used social media sites and online support groups mainly to discuss their treatment options. The women used all the different communication types to help cope with their emotional turmoil, stress, and negative emotions as they faced their battle against breast cancer.

Although only half the women used online communication, those that did seemed to benefit from their experience. The researchers discovered that the women who frequently talked with others online were more likely than their peers to make a definitive breast cancer treatment decision and be satisfied with their choices. It seems that when it comes to the emotional toll of breast cancer, social media and other online communications can be an effective, if underused, tool.

Although the research findings provide hope for those facing a recent breast cancer diagnosis, they do highlight a potential barrier. Older women, women with less education, and minorities are less likely to access these online tools and may miss out on the benefits for their cancer treatment. The study authors suggest that online communications may be a missed opportunity to help many women find information and cope with their breast cancer diagnosis.

The research highlights an opportunity to help breast cancer patients, but it does have some limitations. The study authors point out that although their study analyzed if these women were accessing breast cancer information online, it did not delve into the quality of that information. If women are relying on false or misleading breast cancer information from others, it could potentially hurt their treatment and survival. The researchers urge more analysis of online breast cancer information before encouraging online communication to enhance patient care.

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers, second only to skin cancer, contributing to about 18.2 percent of all cancer deaths. Each year, about 230,000 women in the United States alone receive a breast cancer diagnosis, but about 2,300 men are diagnosed too. Breast cancer occurs when cells in the milk ducts or other areas of the breast multiply uncontrollably, producing a tumor. The first breast cancer symptom women often detect is a lump in their breast, although a lump may not be cancerous. Other breast cancer symptoms include a lump in the armpit, thickened breast tissue, skin pitting or redness, peeling or flaking skin, rash on or near the nipples, nipple discharge, changes in nipple appearance, changes in breast size or shape, and a pain in the breast or armpits that is not related to the menstrual period. If women detect any of these potential breast cancer symptoms, they should contact their doctor for a diagnosis using a breast exam, mammogram, ultrasound, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), or biopsy of the breast tissue. Doctors may treat breast cancer with surgery, hormone therapy, other cancer drugs, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy.

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