Women who communicated via social media after a breast cancer diagnosis and received information and/or support about treatment approaches were happier with their ultimate decisions, a new study finds.
Researchers surveyed thousands of women not long after they learned they had breast cancer. Those who turned to online resources — whether to share the news or gain information or support — felt more satisfied with their treatment, the study found.
The researchers worry that certain breast cancer patients — especially older ones, minorities and those with lower levels of education — will miss out on the possible benefits of going online.
“Our findings highlight an unmet need in patients for decisional support when they are going through breast cancer treatment,” said lead study author Lauren Wallner, an assistant professor of general medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School.
“But at this point, leveraging social media and online communication in clinical practice is not going to reach all patients. There are barriers that need to be considered,” she said in a university news release.
The 2,460 women surveyed answered questions about post-diagnosis email, texting, social media and online support groups.
More than 40 percent said they communicated online some of the time or frequently, with 35 percent texting, emailing or both. Twelve percent said they used outlets like Twitter and Facebook, and a similar percentage turned to online support groups.
“Women reported separate reasons for using each of these modalities,” Wallner said. “Email and texting were primarily to let people know they had been diagnosed. They tended to use social media sites and web-based support groups to interact about treatment options and physician recommendations.”
She added: “Women also reported using all of these outlets to deal with the negative emotions and stress around their breast cancer diagnosis. They’re using these communications to cope.”
Younger women, whites and Asians were more likely to use online communication methods. Blacks and Hispanics were somewhat less likely to use them, the researchers found.
Women who communicated online the most felt the most positive about their choices about treatment. They also said their decisions were more deliberate, and they were more satisfied with them, according to the study.
But the findings don’t prove that using social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter will benefit all breast cancer patients, and the researchers expressed a note of caution.
“For some women, social media may be a helpful resource. But there are still questions to answer before we can rely on it as a routine part of patient care,” Wallner said.
“We don’t know a lot about the type of information women are finding online. What are they sharing and what is the quality of that information?” she wondered. “We need to understand that before we can really harness the potential of social media to better support patients through their cancer treatment and care.”
The study appears in the July 28 issue of JAMA Oncology.
For more about breast cancer, see the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.