Online Health Support Groups Have Emotional Impact
Breast Cancer Support
Women with breast cancer who participate in computer support groups can obtain emotional benefits when they openly express themselves in ways that help them make sense of their cancer experience, according to a new study conducted by the UW-Madison Center of Excellence in Cancer Communications Research (CECCR).
"Even though there are many women with breast cancer participating in online support groups, this is among the first research studies to demonstrate measurable benefits from participation in such groups," says Bret Shaw, lead author of the study, funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
The analysis was conducted on message transcripts from 66 breast cancer patients participating in an online support group member that was integrated with the "Living with Breast Cancer" program, a computer-based health education and support system. The patients were recruited from Madison, Chicago and Indianapolis.
Text messages within the computer-mediated support groups were analyzed using a text analysis program, which measured the percentage of words that were suggestive of learning or understanding (e.g., aware, feels, know, realize, see, think and understand). A higher percentage of these insightful words were associated with improved emotional well-being and reduced negative mood in follow-up surveys.
Earlier studies showed that women with breast cancer use online support groups because they can anonymously communicate with other breast cancer patients and also don't need to maintain a show of strength as may be required with family and friends. Additionally, there is the convenience of being able to communicate with other breast cancer patients as needed based on their own schedule.
"Computer support groups are often conceived of as places where people exchange information, emotional support and encouragement, but it's interesting that another possible benefit appears to come just from having the opportunity to talk openly and constructively about living with breast cancer independent of actual support they receive from others," says Shaw.
The results of the study are published in the March issue of the journal Health Communication.
CECCR was funded in June 2003 by a grant of $10 million from NCI to improve the quality of life for cancer patients and their families, particularly those from underserved populations.