Images Published by Cancer Patients in Social Media and Their Reception: A Systematic Review

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Miguel Varela-Rodríguez
Miguel Vicente-Mariño


This paper presents a systematic review of the discourses that emerge from the study of cancer images posted by patients and caregivers on Instagram, Imgur, Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook. It presents the types of images that posters use to visualise cancer and how they are perceived by viewers. Results indicate that three factors affect visibility and engagement: (a) the framing, (b) the purpose, and (c) the emotions portrayed. They also show that viewers prefer images that (a) show the patient improving their condition through treatment, (b) tell a personal story and (c) take on an optimistic tone. This type of image reflects the common idea of the cancer patient as a survivor, which is particularly visible in breast cancer posts. For patients faced with uncertainty, fear or frustration, the standardisation of survivorship images may challenge identity-formation and create a sense of isolation. However, we also find that patients who use photographs to express negative emotions (such as sadness or frustration) are met with emotional support from viewers. Our findings show that, beyond virality and standardised discourses, visual social media and photography can provide a positive venue for the communication of more diverse cancer experiences from patients and caregivers.

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