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Making the Most of Bad News about Cancer

Published on March 13, 2019 by

When celebrities or other well-known figures go public with the bad news that they have cancer, there’s an opportunity for more than sympathy.  As shown in a new paper in the journal Cancer Control by NCASD Lab PI Carter Butts and alumnus Ben Gibson, with collaborators Sarah Vos and Jeannette Sutton, these announcements can serve as “focusing events” that direct public attention to the disease, and can be used by public health agencies to promote prevention, diagnosis, and treatment messages.  Using over 1.2 million cancer-related Twitter messages over a nine-day period, the team showed that a prominent actor’s disclosed cancer diagnosis and treatment generated a large spike in related discussion regarding the disease, with particular enhancement in messaging around diagnostics.  An examination of message content also highlighted ways in which public perception of and communication about cancer diverges from what is often assumed by public health experts, indicating a gap between cancer communicators and the broader audience they frequently attempt to reach.  The team’s research shows that bad news about cancer can create important windows of opportunity to facilitate discussion – but that leveraging those windows requires a communication strategy that takes into account how members of the public grapple with the disease.

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