How Well Do We Communicate In The Cancer Sector?

 This week I have had some incredibly diverse people contact me, but there has been a common theme so far, and that is communication. How to better engage with people about cancer? I am speaking at conferences and am visiting several organisations who all want to know how to improve their communication, to gain the type of followers they really need, to get their messages out to the right people. I think we are now beginning to learn that because we have followers, subscribers, likes etc  for our social media platforms, it does not necessarily guarantee proper engagement.  Unless you communicate in an interesting way, then why will people interact with you?

This is something that I have always been aware of whilst talking and writing in the cancer market, and was brought home to me by a recent conversation I had after doing an important presentation. This person had enjoyed my work and took the trouble to let me know. They also mentioned that it was an extremely awkward subject to talk about, but ultimately they had left the session with a smile. It is a particularly difficult genre to cover, and very hard to attract people to read cancer related work. Today we have so much competition for our time, that we have become much more selective about what we are able to ‘digest.’ What works in cancer communication 1Modern websites to draw us in and lovely pictures to keep us on the site. Wouldn’t we much rather read about food, fashion, or sport for example? But of course we need to know more about cancer and it’s effects, as it is something that will touch us all either directly or indirectly.

I watch people skim through their mobile devices searching their Facebook and Twitter feeds. Most spin quickly until certain posts are selected and read, obviously we cannot read every piece of content from those we follow but what makes us select the ones we do? In most cases they are people we trust not to waste our time with inane rubbish, and provide content that is appropriate and stimulating for us. I follow several genres quite heavily, and I have reliable people in all of them, where I trust their information and they don’t bombard me with their messages. But the way we communicate via social media is changing rapidly, not so much for the individual, but for organisations trying to get their key messages out there. People will no longer accept continual broadcasting of requests for money or constant sponsored advertising. We now actually want to engage with these companies, meaning a two way process is involved.

But here is the issue, large organisations cannot engage in the way that we do as individuals. In reality we would not expect our energy supplier for example, to communicate in the same way our social friends do, they are limited to how they can interact with their customers. This certainly applies in the cancer field, where health organisations offer increasingly complex information to many vulnerable people, which must be done in a certain way. It is not a glamorous subject at all, and is very difficult to make it anything other than what it is. I have spoken recently to people in organisations who specialise in Health Policy, who consistently complain that no one follows their important work, and I really do understand the issue. However it is not always about the information you are giving but the way you give it.

Talking cancer is not ‘sexy’ at all, so none of us bloggers will be bombarded with so many readers, but it is not always about the numbers. We share our experiences for numerous reasons, and for me the most important one is for others to learn from. Being a patient myself means that I will use language that everyone can understand, and people recognise that I have actually experienced the things I am writing about. What works in cancer communication (2)Just as important is the fact that my posts generally provoke some form of dialogue, whether it is on the blog itself or on Twitter and Facebook, and it is important to me that I reply to everyone who takes the trouble to contact me. I have been writing for three years now, which is quite unusual, as most people write a various stages of their ‘journey’ and rarely continue after their treatment has finished. I know that people’s lives are positively changed by reading about my story as I’ve actually met some who have been, which is the reason I continue.

What is pleasing is that we are understanding now that we need to improve the way we communicate about cancer. Things are changing rapidly, and how we deliver information will need to change too for it to be effective. Working online is common place now, but of course I am aware that not everyone can do that. New technology is changing our world, and we are continuing to learn, what works well and what doesn’t. Working ‘remotely’ seems to have many advantages for both the provider and user, and helps us connect with people that we would previously have been unable to. But importantly, like engaging in relationships in ‘real life’ we will still need to work hard to maintain that. The virtual world, can be a fickle place, where you are unfollowed or unliked by a simple click if people don’t like the way you communicate. Just because you have many followers , it doesn’t mean that they are really listening to what you are saying.We are now talking about cancer more than we ever did, which is a positive thing of course, however many important messages are lost because they are not being communicated in the right way. Just because you post regularly doesn’t mean that your work is done. There is now much more to communicating than just broadcasting and I am pleased to see that health organisations are beginning to understand that. Now the internet has given us the tools, it is up to us to use them properly!

How do you prefer to give or receive information about cancer? Do you prefer the ‘softly softly’ approach or something a little more real? What do you think could be improved about giving cancer information? Maybe you think everything is fine the way it is, as always I look forward to hearing your views!


  1. Yet another thought provoking blog Chris. There is no doubt that the world of social media has opened up many opportunities for small organisations; many run by people like you and me who want to make a real difference; to spread the word about what they do and what they offer. However, it also means that there is so much information out there that we can get lost amongst all the other stuff and have to find ways to stand out.
    However, cancer is not something that you can prettify and glam up – it is a serious subject and one that many people do not talk about until they or a family member get diagnosed.
    Raising awareness of cancer is always going to be hard because no one wants to think that they might get diagnosed with it so they ignore it. I sometimes feel like I am preaching to the converted because most of the people who follow Womb Cancer Support UK via social media have already been diagnosed or know someone who has. They are happy to help spread the word and repost/retweet info but it is hard for that information to go beyond those who have already been touched by cancer.
    It is good to see that larger organisations and health providers are using social media but as you say they will never be able to be as personal as smaller organisations and individuals are at getting their message across.
    I believe that social media has been a very empowering tool for patients but the flip side is that there is so much information out there that people’s attention span becomes so short that they also miss so much.
    Again, plenty of food for thought Chris and I look forward to seeing what others have to say on this subject.

  2. Hi Kaz,

    Apologies for the delay in replying, my recent weeks have been crazy with all my travels on behalf of your simPal.

    I agree with everything you say. There is so much noise out there and a real danger that us smaller ones will get lost. It is also true that it is sometimes difficult to break out of your existing circle, which is something I have been working hard at doing. Our charity is now giving my support work more momentum with a totally different audience now so it is growing organically again.

    Throughout everything I do, I work hard at being different to what is already there, which is extremely difficult of course, but is the key to me. We all have a USP which is ourselves of course, so we must try and adapt it to fit the audience.

    Personally I am not afraid of perceived ‘competition’ as it makes me look at new ways I can work. I do know exactly what you mean though Kaz, and the Your simPal project has re energised me and I am working totally differently now.

    Very best with all you do Kaz, it is so valuable! The independent voice has to be heard!! xx

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