CommonSense Blog

Sixteen Million Cancer Stories a Year: The Social Oncology Project

By Brian Reid | May 30, 2013

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2012 was one heck of a year for new treatments against various different forms of leukemia. In the span of 5 months, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved four novel therapies. Drug approvals always come with a spike of media attention, but we at W2O Group have been curious as to how that flood of interest compares with other events throughout the year, not only in news, but in all of the other conversations we have online about cancer.

This is of special interest this week, as thousands of oncologists, patients, advocates and journalists begin arriving in Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

So we decided to look into how we’re talking about cancer, both at the broadest level and in the context of more specific cancers and more specific communities. We’ve collected the results of this analysis in a new report, the Social Oncology Project, that seeks to draw conclusions from hundreds of thousands of tweets, news stories, blog posts and forum entries. We looked both at overall mentions, as well as how doctors talk about cancer, relying on our MDigitalLife database of verified doctors active online.

Our analyses found both encouraging news about the nature of the online dialogue about cancer, as well as some more concerning findings. For starters, there’s no question that we’re talking about cancer. A lot. In the last year, more than 16 million articles, posts, tweets and entries about cancer found their way online in the United States. That’s a lot of talk, and a testament to the impact of awareness raising campaigns.

In fact, there is a direct correlation between awareness campaigns and online conversations. Overall mentions of cancer rise in October due to a surge in posting around Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But similar, if smaller, increases can be seen in almost every cancer type. Lung conversations are highest in November (Lung Cancer Awareness Month). Mentions of colon cancer rise during March (Colon Cancer Awareness Month). Prostate volumes are up in September.

Not surprisingly, the most-talked-about type of cancer is also the one with the biggest awareness push: breast cancer. More people are talking about breast cancer than the other four of the five largest cancer killers combined. (Lung cancer, which kills more than four times as many people as breast cancer, has only 20 percent of the dialogue of breast cancer. Colon cancer, the number 2 killer, has only 10 percent of the conversation compared to breast cancer.)

The larger question of what is driving those conversations, however, paints a muddier picture, one that may be best illustrated by looking back at leukemia conversations. The unprecedented string of new drug approvals in the second half of last year didn’t create so much as a blip in the overall number of online conversations about blood cancers. But football did: when Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano announced that he had been diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia, mentions shot up tenfold. The next big spike in conversations was also football-related: when the story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti T’eo’s fake girlfriend – who T’eo had said died of leukemia – broke.

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That’s not to say that celebrities and awareness months are the only drivers of attention, nor that the attention in one medium (say, Twitter) is reflective of discussions in others (say, online news). But, overall, we remain a social bunch online: raw data and “new chemical entities” from the FDA might not move us to share and reflect online, but human stories, be they in the news or those we hear from our friends and colleagues during awareness events, have a way of engaging us.