Palliative and Supportive Care

Original Articles

Computer-mediated and face-to-face communication in metastatic cancer support groups

Ruvanee P. Vilhauer 

Psychology Department, Felician College, Lodi, New Jersey


Objective: To compare the experiences of women with metastatic breast cancer (MBC) in computer-mediated and face-to-face support groups.

Method: Interviews from 18 women with MBC, who were currently in computer-mediated support groups (CMSGs), were examined using interpretative phenomenological analysis. The CMSGs were in an asynchronous mailing list format; women communicated exclusively via email. All the women were also, or had previously been, in a face-to-face support group (FTFG).

Results: CMSGs had both advantages and drawbacks, relative to face-to-face groups (FTFGs), for this population. Themes examined included convenience, level of support, intimacy, ease of expression, range of information, and dealing with debilitation and dying. CMSGs may provide a sense of control and a greater level of support. Intimacy may take longer to develop in a CMSG, but women may have more opportunities to get to know each other. CMSGs may be helpful while adjusting to a diagnosis of MBC, because women can receive support without being overwhelmed by physical evidence of disability in others or exposure to discussions about dying before they are ready. However, the absence of nonverbal cues in CMSGs also led to avoidance of topics related to death and dying when women were ready to face them. Agendas for discussion, the presence of a facilitator or more time in CMSGs may attenuate this problem.

Significance of results: The findings were discussed in light of prevailing research and theories about computer-mediated communication. They have implications for designing CMSGs for this population.

(Received May 21 2012)

(Accepted December 02 2012)


  • Computer-mediated communication;
  • Online support;
  • Breast cancer;
  • Metastatic;
  • Support group;
  • Face-to-face


Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Ruvanee P. Vilhauer, Psychology Department Felician College, 262 South Main Street, Lodi, New Jersey 07644. E-mail: