As a health communicator, I have made a career out of carefully crafting messaging to ensure that the right words are used to communicate to people about health-related topics. I aim to write materials that are clear, concise, and easy to understand. I espouse the use of plain language principles and am a health literacy champion. But I have never really given a great deal of thought about how the ability to communicate effectively about health is an equally important skill in everyday life.
We’ve all encountered times when a friend, neighbor, or co-worker lost a loved one after a long illness. Chances are, you found yourself unsure of what to say or how to say it. Likewise, we have all probably been on the receiving end of an unintentionally insensitive comment about a loved one’s death or perhaps about our own health.
It’s hard enough to deal with this type of situation when you are an adult, but it is exponentially more difficult for a teenager. With this in mind, a researcher at Massey University in New Zealand is seeking to study social interactions that may help or make things more difficult for adolescents and young adults who are dealing with cancer.
Acknowledging that social support is an incredibly important part of a person’s experience with cancer, clinical psychology doctoral candidate Nicole Cameron points out that social interaction can be both positive and negative, and when those interactions are negative, it “can be detrimental to a person’s physical and psychological health.”
For her study, Cameron will work with people between the ages of 16 and 25 who have or who have battled cancer and discuss their experiences communicating with others about their disease. Her goal is to learn more about these experiences, including the communication needs and sensitivities of young people dealing with cancer. The results of the study may provide information that will help the families and friends of young people with cancer, as well as health organizations “provide the right kinds of support for young people they know with cancer.”
Although Cameron’s study is only in early stages, an article examining social interactions and social support for people with cancer was published last month in the open-access Journal of Medical Internet Research. The article suggests that a “strong majority” of participants who participated in cancer-related chats on Twitter agree that they “provided a safe and welcoming forum for support and education.”
The chats, which use #BCSM (standing for breast cancer social media), tout themselves as “the intersection of breast cancer and all things social media.” A particularly interesting finding from the study is that many of the individuals surveyed were motivated by the #BCSM tweet chats to participate in volunteer or advocacy efforts.
Although different in nature, these two studies highlight the importance of the social aspect of coping with cancer (or any disease), as well as the need for communication tools to help providers and families provide support to those who need it the most. Continued research into this area of health communication will hopefully provide us with improved ways of providing social support.