How Do Patients and Institutions Talk About Breast Cancer on Twitter?

In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers analyzed how Twitter users talk about breast cancer on the social media platform.

In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers analyzed how Twitter users talk about breast cancer on the social media platform. They found that breast cancer awareness and prevention are among the more common topics, and the findings could generally be used to guide advocacy and patient organizations in providing resources and support.

“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,” said Rodrigo Sánchez-Bayona, MD, of Clinica Universidad de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, according to a press release. “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.”

Sánchez-Bayona will present results of the new analysis at the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) 2018 Congress, to be held in Munich from October 19–23.

The study involved analyzing all tweets posted with the hashtag #BreastCancer over a 7-day period; they included a total of 6,341 tweets, of which 3,703 were original and 2,638 were retweets.

Of the full set of tweets, 1,144 of them (31%) were considered to have medical content; of those, 90% were deemed to have appropriate content. A total of 2,559 tweets (69%) were deemed non-medical, and 14.8% of those were considered to have a stigmatizing attitude regarding cancer.

A total of 1,137 tweets (30.7%) contained content relating to a patient’s experience, while 96 tweets (2.6%) contained an experience from the perspective of a relative of a patient. Sixty percent of tweets came from private accounts, while 40% came from institutions or public accounts.

The aims of tweets included scientific (17.3%), advertising (15.8%), fundraising (8.3%), and patient advocacy (25.3%). When broken down into subthemes, prevention was most common (44.5%) followed by treatment (25.5%), diagnosis (18.6%), and prognosis (11.4%).

The authors noted that this was part of a larger study on discussion of diseases more generally on social media, in which they found that cancer was the most mentioned pathology on Twitter around the world.

Sánchez-Bayona said the findings may prove useful to various types of organizations. “In particular, advocacy organizations can draw on them to create relevant medical content and counseling about cancer that will be more accessible to users,” he said.

Marina Garassino, MD, of Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori in Milan, who was not involved with the research, noted that there are clearly large numbers of patients using 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. “Academic institutions and key opinion leaders need to be even more active in spreading their findings through these channels to counteract the many ‘fake news’ circulating online.”