Online communication can reduce depression in cancer

Women with breast cancer felt less depressed after creating personal websites that allowed them to chronicle their cancer experiences online and stay in touch with their social networks.

The randomized controlled trial yielding this finding was led by Annette L. Stanton of the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA) Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“From our own and others' previous research, we know that expressing emotions surrounding the experience and gaining social support can be helpful for people diagnosed with cancer, and we know that interpersonal interventions can be useful,” noted Stanton, a professor of psychology, psychiatry, and biobehavioral sciences, in a UCLA statement.

However, as Stanton and her colleagues wrote in their Journal of Clinical Oncology report, adaptive expression of feelings and communication with one's social network can pose challenges for persons with cancer.

The investigators evaluated an intervention called Project Connect Online (PCO) by randomizing 88 women at various stages of breast cancer and with varying intervals since diagnosis to one of two groups. One group was assigned to participate in a 3-hour workshop for hands-on creation of personal websites; these patients also received a follow-up call to facilitate website use. The remaining women became the waiting-list control group. They were offered the workshop 6 months later, after the experimental data had been collected.

In the workshop, the PCO participants learned about the potential uses of personal websites, such as expressing emotions related to cancer, providing medical status updates to family and friends, and letting others know how they could help the patient. The women also discussed such concerns as the pressure to be positive or eloquent when expressing themselves online. By the end of the session, they had written their first posts.

The patients were assessed before randomization and 6 months postintervention for depressive symptoms, positive and negative mood, cancer-related intrusive thoughts, and perceived cancer-related benefits in life appreciation and strengthened relationships.

Compared with the control participants, the PCO patients showed significant benefit 6 months later in terms of depressive symptoms, positive mood, and life appreciation, but not in negative mood, perceived strengthened relationships, or intrusive thoughts.

The PCO-related benefits on depressive symptoms and positive mood were particularly strong for women who were undergoing medical treatment for cancer during the intervention period, most of whom had metastatic disease.

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