What Works In Cancer Communication?

 The start to my year has been incredibly interesting, and I have been contacted by many different areas of the cancer sector. From large corporate health companies, PR organisations and charities, to private doctors, the mix has been extremely diverse, but there has been a common theme so far, and that is communication. How to better engage with people about cancer? 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. food for thought for me Chris. I’m trying to do something similar to you but (currently) in a niche area and it’s bloody hard work! The bit about fundraising is spot on as social media is full of the stuff. However, I would add that high profile backing seems to do the trick though!

    Your question is a good one. I mainly go looking for the info using multiple sources but I’m becoming conscious about how my own stuff is received and thus your blog is a timely reminder to think about this a bit more. I have been experimenting but with mixed results so the experimentation continues!

    • Hi Ronny. In the 3 years that I have been writing there must have been millions more cancer blogs created. I guess I have done the groundwork that you are talking about, which is indeed hard work and getting tougher! Initially you need to decide why you are doing it. Is it for you or your audience, and who is your audience? Niche areas are always tough as you will never obtain the size of audience your effort may deserve.

      I feel that as a patient your needs are continually changing as your experience increases, therefore what may be appropriate at one time is not always so later on. Our blogs are like buses, as people get on or off as it suits them, which is fine. This site is the focal point for all my work and is a 24/7 window for people around the world. It is important to me that it reflects clearly what I do and who I am.

      I wish you well with your quest Ronny and if my experience can help at any stage please don’t hesitate to get in touch, Chris

  2. I’m for the direct approach – the ‘real’. That said when i was initially diagnosed I found it difficult to take it all in. I found i had forgotten a lot of what was said – the shock i guess. Fortunately J was was with me and he took it all in and asked detailed questions I was unable to think of never mind formulate. I found the consultant’s sketches useful!

    • Hi Kay, I’m also for the direct approach, but the point you make about not being able to take it all in is a key one! We all have different ways of dealing with information and some cope better than others when given tough news. I have spoken to many professionals about the way that information is delivered, and with the benefit of hindsight I feel the ‘slowly slowly’ approach is correct.

      Information overload can be a negative thing, and in my own case if I had known all the details about what was going to happen to me I wouldn’t have gone ahead with the treatment. I never got the full story or didn’t take it in, and I’m pleased about that.

      My wife also insisted on coming to the appointments and she certainly picked up the things I missed! That is a great tip for others. The positive thing these days is that there is a lot of good information to choose from. There is the fairly standard healthcare stuff or patient experience via blogs like this.

      I wish you well as always, Chris

  3. Thank you as always Chris for your words, as always you hit the nail on the head. I went with my husband Norm to see the urology clinic last week. We were told to come back in August so that he can be checked for his prostrate again — so that was good news. Norm had an operation to his bladder (which was narrowing) and ‘shaved’ his prostrate at the same time. that was 19 years ago. It has taken to last year he has to go for check ups What I need to say is that people young and old with any problems to their body should see their GP straight away not ‘I will leave till tomorrow’ 9 out of 10 times we can be cured of cancer I know because that is what happened to me. Very soon I will be 1 year without that dreaded word of cancer. My husband has been free for 19 years . I heard on the radio last week 5 out of 10 people will have cancer at some time in their lives. I am trying to say to every one . TAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF IF YOU ARE NOT WELL SEE YOUR GP AND GET SORTED OUT BEFORE IT ‘S TOO LATE.

  4. Hi Georgine, many thanks for your comments re the post, which are much appreciated. I’m so pleased to hear your positive stories and happy to share your message. Unfortunately many of us put off going to the GP which is why I do the work I do. Awareness is a big factor, and in many cases outcomes are determined by delays in diagnosis. We are getting better at talking about cancer, hence the many websites, FB etc but we still have a long way to go. My best to you both and thank you for sharing your personal experiences for the benefit of others, Chris

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