Patients Prefer Online Forums to TV Shows for Peer Stories about Cancer


A recent study found that the preferred way to hear cancer stories and connect with other patients is via online forums.

Patients with cancer often seek out information about their disease from many sources. Whether they be from real individuals or fictional characters, peer stories about cancer can be seen throughout mass media, online and on television. A recent study found, however, that patients with cancer preferred peer stories from the internet, specifically those from online forums — much CURE’s forum.

The study, done by Jan Van den Bulck, D.Sc., Ph.D., of the University of Michigan, and Sara Nelissen, M.A. and Kathleen Bellens, Ph.D., of the University of Leuven in Belgium, was published online in the Journal of Cancer Education. The researchers aimed to determine what medium most patients with cancer use to find peer stories, what the emotional response to those different media were, and whether there were any differences in behavior associated with the gender of the patients.

With data from the Leuven Cancer Information Survey, the researchers looked at 621 patients diagnosed with cancer in Flanders, Belgium. Most of the patients were female, and were aged 54 on average. Patients indicated information on their personal background and whether they used television or the internet to follow peer stories, and how they felt. The options presented for emotional responses were “feeling hopeful, feeling supported, feeling concerned and feeling fearful.”

Researchers found that patients used both Internet and television as sources for peer stories. However, the stories from television evoked more feelings of fear and concern. Meanwhile, stories on online forums generated responses of feeling supported.

The authors speculated that these different emotional responses could be due to the nature of the content on each medium (fictional vs. non-fictional). In addition, there was a difference in the mindset of patients when engaging with each medium. Reading peer stories through online forums was something done “on a more conscious and active level,” according to the study. Watching entertainment television programs that contain peer stories “is likely to be a more passive activity.”

The researchers went on to state that the suspenseful nature of television shows, crafted to keep viewer’s attention, can contribute to the fear and concern that patients with cancer feel. Van den Bulck, professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, added that TV shows have dramatic and emotional visual images.

Meanwhile, forums provide more factual and less visual information, according to Van den Bulck. Patients “are comforted and feel supported by the stories and reactions from people who are going through the same ordeal.” Nelissen, the study’s lead author, suggested that another source of support was the interaction between patients posting stories and patients reading them.

The study also looked at differences between men and women diagnosed with cancer and found that women made more use of all sources for peer stories.

The authors suggest that healthcare providers encourage patients with cancer to follow peer stories, but to be mindful of the medium that they are engaging with.

The researchers also indicate that “guidelines for cancer information that is encountered on television” could be just as important as the guidelines intended to help patients evaluate health and cancer information online. They also recommend that more factual information could be used in entertainment television programs via the health promotion strategy entertainment education, “to simultaneously entertain and educate its viewers.”

With regards to future research, the authors wrote about the investigation of “the role of mass media content and how different psychological coping styles and personality traits moderate these associations.”

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