Though cancer patients have long benefited from support groups made up of fellow patients and survivors, researchers said, they may still have trouble talking about their experiences with family and friends — who may also feel uncomfortable broaching the subject.
The websites in this study were especially helpful for women to "be able to truly tell their story, express emotions and communicate with others without having to repeat information about their diagnosis and treatment," said lead author and psychologist Annette Stanton of the University of California at Los Angeles.
The study is the first to use a randomized controlled trial to evaluate online intervention tools and their influence on patient moods, Stanton told Reuters Health. Popular sites like CaringBridge.org and MyLifeLine.org offer similar tools, "but, to our knowledge, none of those websites have been tested for their effects," she said.
For their study, Stanton and her colleagues recruited 88 women from BreastLink, a network of cancer treatment centers in Southern California. The women ranged in age from 28 to 76 years old and roughly half were randomly assigned to create a personal website through a program called "Project Connect Online." The rest were put on a waiting list and given the same opportunity after the six-month study ended.
Participants in the group that created websites during the study began by attending a single three-hour workshop to build their Wordpress.org-based sites. They also completed standard mood assessment questionnaires three times: at the start of the study, and again at one month and six months after creating their sites.
During the first month after creating the site, participants spent an average of three hours adding materials and interacting with their project online. The site included a blog with personal photos, a "How You Can Help" page and a section directing visitors to outside information links.
At one month and six months, the women who built websites reported feeling less depressed and more positive, compared to the group on the waiting list. But there was no link between having a personal website and the strength of relationships with family and friends, nor did the activity seem to ward off intrusive, cancer-related thoughts.
And the positive changes in mood and attitude were most noticeable among women undergoing cancer treatment during the study period, compared to women who had already completed treatment, the researchers report in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
"It's a small sample size and it needs to be confirmed and reproduced," said study co-author Dr. James Waisman, a breast cancer oncologist at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California. The study is nevertheless encouraging, Waisman said.
Yan Hong, a health behaviorist at Texas A&M University Health Science Center in College Station, called the results compelling. "Scientists have been excited about online intervention tools for a long time," she said.
Hong, who was not involved in the current study, recently published a review of previous research that found no strong links between online tools and improved mental health.
But she noted that the data she analyzed were only as recent as the early 2000s. None of the studies examined the potential benefits to patients of sharing their experiences through social media like Facebook or Twitter.
Most studies looking at Internet interventions have focused on a narrow part of the population that has access to the Internet, Hong said. This means the results are difficult to apply to the public outside the study.
Between 15 and 25 percent of cancer patients suffer from depression, according to the National Cancer Institute.
As patients get sicker and lose the ability to go out in public, online intervention tools could come in handy, Waisman said.
"This is a way they can mobilize support — through their computer and their website," he said.
To read the study, go to http://bit.ly/1fffVzj.