The Internet a Haven for the Ill

August 22, 2008 06:56 AM
by Liz Colville
Most evidence suggests that, for therapeutic purposes, the Web could be an unprecedented boon, acting as a bridge that unites the ill in a variety of heath situations.

Blog Therapy

In 2003, the British Psychological Society released a study suggesting that writing could be a powerful antidote to “traumatic personal events,” and it was certainly not the first of its kind. In the 1990s, J.W. Pennebaker of Southern Methodist University and his colleagues and peers drew similar conclusions about the power of writing to temper and heal, with Pennebaker advocating the inclusion of writing as part of traditional therapy.

With the advent of blogging and online message boards, writing is forging new paths into people’s lives, providing new and less formal ways to vent, share and discuss personal issues. An exploration of’s blog feature in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior in 2008 suggested that people “motivated by negative effect” intentionally turned to their MySpace blogs “with a view to expressing and possibly alleviating their distress.”

The Boston Globe reported August 20 on how the influx of online writing has benefited cancer patients, whose blogging efforts not only assuage their own suffering but are a way to keep in touch with family members and connect with strangers, including other cancer sufferers. Such an activity is becoming “part of the treatment” of cancer, and appears to have few associated risks. Two researchers at Ohio State University interviewed by the Globe claim that blogging about cancer is productive. “These folks will look back over the last few years and say: ‘Look at what I’ve come through,’” said one of the researchers, Jennifer Moreland. “‘Hopefully, someone else can read this and survive as well.’”

But with the vast and liberating nature of online writing comes inherent risks and privacy issues: Harriet Berman of the Wellness Community of Greater Boston told the Globe that “some people could expose themselves more than they maybe want to” by blogging. It can be hard to know who is reading blogs, or how they will react to what they read. Furthermore, information that bloggers provide to their readers could be construed as medical knowledge or advice, which can also happen on message boards and other advice sites like Yahoo Answers.

The implication is that without the traditional support system that cancer patients and others suffering from illness receive—from doctors, friends and family, and group or individual counseling—blogging may not be as strong a resource. But along with traditional methods, it can be a powerful boost to a person’s confidence, well-being and outlook.

With Google, Microsoft and others looking to revolutionize patient data by using the Internet, those with health matters big and small can expect the Internet to become a more organized venue for health-related information in the coming years. For now, the emotional side of illness has found a sounding board in blogging.

Opinion & Analysis: Conversations about cancer

Leroy Sievers, a cancer victim and former blogger for NPR who passed away on August 15, was an inspiration to hundreds of cancer patients, proving that the act of simply reading a blog about cancer can often be enough of a “treatment” for those who also suffer from it; starting one’s own blog isn’t a requirement. One fan of Sievers’s blog, Stephanie Dornbrook, said that “responding to the blog gave her courage to openly discuss aspects of her battle against cancer with her family.”

Sievers and others are, in effect, part of a trend that is banishing the taboo nature of cancer. He told NPR in an interview, “When I first started out, a lot of people thought I was nuts. It’s like, ‘Why do you want to talk about it?’ Because for the most part people don’t talk about it. And the more I thought about it, it’s part of my life. … And it’s OK to talk about it.”

For some, blogging is approached gingerly before it is embraced. Adrian Sudbury, a British blogger with leukemia who passed away just days after Sievers, voiced at the beginning of his foray into blogging that he “wasn’t really sure about the whole idea of blogging,” AP writes, but “hoped it would help people understand what leukemia is and how it’s treated.” His blog was a medium for emotional release, as well as a venue for advocacy of bone marrow transplants.

When it comes to the potential pitfalls of turning to cancer blogs, medical experts tend to caution patients, despite encouraging statistics showing that most people don’t trust blogs for medical advice, but do trust them for support. As Warner Slack, M.D., co-director of the Division of Clinical Computing in the Department of Medicine at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center notes in Prevention magazine, information found in blogs usually needs to be verified by a reputable site like the National Library of Medicine.

Related Topic: Video game therapy


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