Pink October: Social media helps raise awareness about breast cancer

by Otávio Clark | Oct 13, 2016

Brazil is painted pink in October. The color lights up historical monuments and public buildings, garnishes the ribbons that symbolize the movement, and serves to promote awareness and encourage public involvement in the control of breast cancer. And if the objective is to inform, social media is an extremely effective tool.

“In addition to being a powerful awareness tool, social media can bring new insight into the barriers faced by patients seeking early detection or even treatment,” says oncologist Luciana Clark, Scientific Communications Director, Evidências - Kantar Health.

Published this year in the Journal of Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, a study analyzed more than 1 million social media posts on breast cancer. Using advanced software for data mining, the authors found that 38% of posts addressed difficulties related to the diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Among these barriers were emotional aspects (fear, anxiety, denial and depression); personal beliefs (misconceptions, preferences, and religious and spiritual aspects); and physical aspects (adverse events and body changes caused by the treatment), as well as lack of financial resources, lack of communication with the health team and previous negative experiences.

“Many of these barriers can be lifted through education, improved communication and psychological support, which would increase the access of patients to examinations and treatment, hence the importance of social media to map these difficulties and achieve a positive intervention,” Clark says.


Another study recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research evaluated the effectiveness of Twitter as means of education about breast cancer and its impact on the anxiety of the participants. The study showed that the majority of participants (80.9%) said that tweets increased their general knowledge on breast cancer and helped them get more information on clinical trials, research and treatment options.


But social media channels are not always used in a beneficial way. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Health Communication analyzed the messages posted on the Facebook page of an American non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to raising awareness about breast cancer during Pink October. The results showed that the Facebook page did not always promote valid health information and focused more on selling merchandise to raise funds than in educating users.

In addition, both social media and traditional media often convey incomplete, decontextualized and even out-of-date information during Pink October, which can mislead the public regarding prevention and treatment of breast cancer.

A survey conducted last year by Evidências - Kantar Health found that campaigns in Brazil and other Latin American countries focus mainly on self-examination, despite the abundance of scientific evidence suggesting that this procedure is not effective for detection and does not contribute to reduce mortality from breast cancer.

The National Cancer Institute José Alencar Gomes da Silva (INCA) does not identify breast self-exam as an isolated strategy for early detection of breast cancer. The institute recommends breast self-exams as part of health education activities familiarizing yourself with your own body. According to oncologist Bruna Pegoretti, Medical Intelligence Coordinator, Evidências - Kantar Health, breast self-exam alone does not help to detect cancer.

“Early diagnosis is critical to increase the chances of healing, since it is directly related to the stage of disease at diagnosis, so mammograms and regular visits to your doctor are key,” Pegoretti says.

Taking care

In Brazil, the Ministry of Health recommends conducting a screening mammogram (absent any symptoms) in women aged 50 to 69 years once every two years. Despite the ministry’s recommendation, 40% of Brazilian women in this age group do not get mammograms, according to the National Health Survey conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

Furthermore, INCA data indicate that only 2.5 million mammograms were performed in Brazil during 2014, representing a rate of 24.8% – still far below the recommendation by the World Health Organization (WHO) of 70%. Early diagnosis is important in breast cancer because the sooner the disease is detected, the easier it is to treat it and the chances of remission are also higher.

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