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Brunel study shows major differences in cancer patients needs

Prof. Clive Seale from the School of Social Sciences and Law at Brunel University has led a study in collaboration with researchers from Oxford and Surrey Universities*, which analyses the ways in which male and female cancer patients use the Internet to cope with their illness. Men were found more likely to use the Internet to access factual information about the impact of their cancer and the best medical treatments. Women, on the other hand, are more interested in using the Internet to seek emotional support and to discuss the impact of their illness on their relationships.

The study was conducted in two phases. The first phase was analysis of a series of interviews with 97 cancer sufferers (45 women with breast cancer, 52 men with prostate cancer) regarding their use of the Internet. The second phase used keyword analysis to analyse postings made by 1,053 people with cancer to two of the most popular UK based breast and prostate cancer forums / web sites.

The study's key findings were:
• Men's concerns cluster around treatment information, tests, diagnostic procedures, symptoms of illness, procedures and side effects of treatment
• Men particularly like to use web forums to increase their knowledge of their disease and assess the impact the cancer will have on particular areas of the body.
• Women with cancer are more likely to seek social and emotional support on the Internet and to share personal experiences
• Some women felt that fact gathering on the Internet was an inadequate substitute for emotional support
• Women's forum postings were more likely to show concern about the impact of illness on a wide range of other people, especially family members
• Women use words that refer to feelings, emotions and other people more so than men. Their greater use of 'superlatives' such as 'lovely' 'amazing' brilliant' and 'wonderful' is associated with a more emotional style of communicating.

Speaking about the study, Prof. Seale says: “This study highlights the ways in which male and female cancer patients deal with their illness. Accessing support groups and sharing cancer experiences online is a key coping mechanism for women. In contrast, men gather as much information as they can on their cancer type and treatments.

“It is important that we acknowledge the ways in which men and women cope with cancer and provide them with the types of information and support that they require. The results may also have an impact on sufferers of other illnesses too.“

Dr Chris Hiley, Head of Policy and Research at The Prostate Cancer Charity says: "Perhaps it isn't surprising that the way men and women with breast and prostate cancers communicate in web forums is different, but it is very important that these differences are spelled out and understood. We know that not all cancers are the same and that individuals will handle their cancer in different ways, but it is fascinating that Professor Seale's research clearly shows, in general, a gender split in the preferred style of communication.

"It's obviously important that people affected by cancer are able to participate in forums and chat rooms in a way that suits their individual styles and needs over time. The learning from this research is welcome and will help to inform The Prostate Cancer Charity's evolving style of communication across all our resources, ensuring that it is as helpful as possible to all people affected by prostate cancer."

* The study authors include Clive Seale (Brunel University), Jonathan Charteris-Balck (University of Surrey) and Sue Ziebland (University of Oxford).