Breast cancer patients turn to Instagram for social support

Breast cancer patients turn to Instagram for social support

Breast cancer patients and survivors are turning to Instagram as a source of social support and to share often hidden aspects of health care treatments, a new study shows.

The study by Melbourne’s RMIT University and Chicago’s Loyola University looked at Instagram posts by female breast cancer patients and survivors who used the platform to share their experiences.

Co-author, Senior Lecturer in Marketing Dr Lauren Gurrieri, said women found social support through sharing information about their procedures and what was happening to their bodies while going through treatment.

“We found that women using Instagram in this way were able to share the emotional side of dealing with illness and form a deep sense of community over the shared experience of illness,” Gurrieri said.

“It highlights the way social media can play a positive role in people’s lives, fostering social support and enhancing the well-being of those experiencing illness.”

By sharing details of their health care experiences, these women were also providing others with hard to find information, Gurrieri said.

“One woman enlisted the help of her health practitioner to film her radiation treatment before posting it on Instagram, while another documented her breast surgery,” she said.

“This use of Instagram enabled these women to share images and video of their experiences in real-time and everything that occurs such as what your breasts look like a day after surgery, or what it looks like when you’re lying in a radiation machine undergoing treatment.

“All of this support was provided by women who were undergoing the same lived experiences and had amassed a lot of knowledge and were then able to share many of the hidden aspects of treatment.”

The benefits of this were it not only provided a learning resource for others, but also gave an overall picture of the illness experience, some of which challenged more mainstream accounts of recovery, Gurrieri said.

“One woman documented the ongoing care required after she was deemed to be ‘cancer free’ including monthly check ups and treatments such as iron infusions, which is not often mentioned in mainstream discussion.

“We saw that women were using Instagram to present a more realistic picture of the ongoing emotional and physical recovery following cancer, challenging more mainstream stories.

Showing the hidden aspects of health treatments through visual story telling was helping to normalise the experience and was an important means of fostering the social support needed to address the vulnerabilities of these health care consumers and enhance their well-being, the researchers found.

“It highlights how visual storytelling on Instagram is filling a gap which currently exists in the health care system, and contributing to the well-being of patients, survivors and society in general,” Gurrieri said.

The study focused on 18 women across the US, UK, Norway, Spain and Canada who shared images and video of their treatments, many calling themselves #breasties, and with a combined following of nearly 210,000.

The study, Visual storytelling and vulnerable health care consumers: normalising practices and social support through Instagram, is published in the Journal of Services Marketing.


Story: Diana Robertson

20 December 2019


20 December 2019


  • Research
  • Society

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