What do Twitter users have to say about lung cancer?

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Social media platforms have quickly become dominant outlets to discuss healthcare, including lung cancer-specific topics across the cancer prevention and control continuum. But how exactly does that information spread on such outlets?

recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology included data from 1.3 million unique Twitter messages over a 10-day period. The data all included keywords commonly used to describe cancer, including “chemo,” “tumor,” “malignant” and so on.

“Recent research has examined the use of social media, in particular Twitter, to identify how patients communicate about their screening experiences, respond to changing U.S. Preventive Services Task Force guidelines, assess the source and credibility of colorectal cancer information, how providers recruit for clinical trials, and how cancer survivors tweet about their journeys,” wrote lead author Jeannette Sutton, PhD, of the department of communication at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and colleagues. “However, there is a paucity of research evaluating how site-specific cancer communication may attend to audience needs for information ranging from prevention through end-of-life considerations.”

Researchers used 3,000 randomly selected lung cancer tweets for the final analysis. The authors aimed to describe, evaluate, compare and report the “terse” content of the tweets by user type (individual, organization, government agency, media outlet, and unknown user).

Of the 3,000 tweets analyzed:

  • 946 tweets were focused on treatment.
  • 676 were focused on awareness.
  • 456 were focused on end of life.
  • 392 were focused on prevention and risk information.
  • 225 were focused on active cancer-unknown phase.
  • 181 were focused on diagnosis.
  • 80 were focused on early detection.
  • 30 were focused on survivorship.

“Results of this analysis will provide insight into how Twitter is currently used to address lung cancer and may provide insights into approaches to expand the reach and impact of Twitter-based lung cancer prevention, control, treatment and survivorship messaging,” Sutton et al. wrote.

The researchers noted:

  • Awareness tweets were more likely to mention a celebrity’s illness or call to action (such as screening. They were less likely to focus on personal experience, research or pharmaceuticals.
  • Prevention and risk tweets were more likely to mention a personal experience or call to action and less likely to focus on celebrities, research or pharmaceuticals.
  • Early detection tweets were more likely to mention a call to action.
  • Diagnosis tweets were more likely to mention a personal experience.
  • Treatment tweets were more likely to mention research and pharmaceutical information and less likely to focus on personal experience, celebrities or call to action.
  • Survivorship tweets were more likely to focus on personal experience.
  • Active cancer-unknown phase tweets were more likely to mention personal experience.
  • End-of-life tweets were more likely to mention personal experiences or celebrities.

“Topical public tweets about lung cancer on Twitter are most frequently focused on treatment and awareness,” the authors wrote. “To a lesser extent, Twitter users communicate about modifiable cancer risk factors or cancer prevention. Importantly, although awareness and risk prevention tweets are likely to contain personally mobilizing cues to action, messages focused on treatment, end of life, or active or unknown phase were significantly less likely to integrate cues for personal activity. Such findings suggest an opportunity to increase cues to action across all phases of the communication continuum.”