January 20 2016

Researching cancer using social media

Dr Britta Stordal, Senior Lecturer in the School of Science and TechnologySenior Lecturer in Natural Sciences Dr Britta Stordal is running a cancer research project with undergraduate dissertation students and they need your help.

When you picture what cancer research looks like, you are probably thinking about a group of scientists with lab coats on looking at cells down a microscope.  If so, you are quite correct, we do spend a lot of time wearing lab coats when we study cancer cells in the laboratory. But not always.

Undergraduate Biomedical Science dissertation students at Middlesex University have the opportunity to have the full lab-coats-on experience and work on cancer research projects in the laboratory as part of their degree programme.

However, this year I decided to offer my dissertation students something a bit different. A research project using an online survey to investigate public awareness of the risk factors and symptoms of cancer. The project idea proved popular with the students and I am working with four excellent students investigating the public awareness of ovarian and cervical cancer.

A student in the University's Hatchcroft labs

A student researcher in the University’s Hatchcroft labs

So how can an online survey help tackle cancer?

Our surveys are about the risk factors and symptoms of ovarian and cervical cancer. By making people aware of risk factors for a disease you might be able to change behaviour and reduce the incidence of the disease in the first place. The classic example of this is that smoking cigarettes increases the risk of getting lung cancer. This knowledge means that individuals can choose to reduce their risk of getting cancer by quitting smoking.

By making people aware of the symptoms of a disease you can increase the early detection of the disease. The success of breast cancer treatment can be in part attributed to public awareness that the symptom of a lump or change in breast tissue is something you need to see your GP about. The earlier a cancer is detected the earlier the treatment can commence and the better the outcome for the patient.

By making people aware of risk factors for a disease you might be able to change behaviour and reduce the incidence of the disease in the first place.

I can’t tell you what the risk factors and symptoms of ovarian and cervical cancer are right now as I’d like you to complete our surveys first. At the end of the surveys there are links to take you to further information about both types of cancer.

What will our survey do that previous ones have not?

We are particularly interested in getting a balanced view of the London and UK population. Previous research in this field has been dominated by responses from people identifying as white British. We aim to get a more representative sample of the population of London by starting our recruitment of participants through the ethnically diverse student population of Middlesex University.

Where are we so far?

We launched the surveys in December and have been circulating them throughout the University, the University’s social media sites and on our personal social media sites. So far we have had around 200 responses to each survey which is a pretty good response.

However, scientists are rarely happy with pretty good and always need more data to answer their research questions. We have examined the surveys collected so far and we are getting a good mix of participants from different ethnic backgrounds. However, we are not recruiting many male participants. Our participant population is also very highly educated, with most participants having completed or completing undergraduate education. Our population is also fairly young with an average age of 29.

What can you do to help?

Please complete our surveys. The links are below and they take less than 10 minutes each. Please post the surveys on social media and forward to friends, family and colleagues. We are interested in the opinion of everyone but in the interest of balanced research we’d like more men and older people to complete our survey. We are interested in people from London, the rest of the UK and internationally.

Ovarian Survey: https://mdxl.eu.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_4GuloInGNXW59sx

Cervical Survey: https://mdxl.eu.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_25Faj8UZcZhmfc1

Sudanese Ovarian Survey: https://mdxl.eu.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_dmP7eLXsKyW8brf

We are particularly interested in recruiting people from Sudan as one student is studying cancer awareness in her home country. This is the link to the Sudanese version of the survey.

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