Connecting Online For Support

In The Early Show's week-long Cancer Connection series, we profiled four women who helped each other battle breast cancer through an online support group.

They finally met face-to-face for the first time Friday in The Early Show studio.

Wrapping up the series, online contributor Regina Lewis visited The Saturday Early Show to discuss how to access information, breast cancer support groups and resource sites available on the internet to those looking for the kind of support these four women found.

Lewis says on a typical day, about six million Americans search out medical advice online. One in four seeks online community support. And, a recent poll shows that 52 percent of all those afflicted with cancer are looking for help online.

As anyone who has ever surfed the Web knows, the amount of information available is overwhelming. Where do you start? And how can you be sure you're getting good information? Lewis offered these tips:

Consider the Source
Lewis says it's important to check sources, especially regarding your health. If you are on the official site for the National Cancer Institute, you can be pretty comfortable that you're getting up-to-date information from a credible source. But if you delve deeper into the web and you're unsure where the information is from, Lewis suggests taking a moment to click on the "About Us" link and learn more about the organization behind the site.

Lewis explains you may find out the site is sponsored by a major pharmaceutical company or an organization actively recruiting for clinical trials. She says that doesn't necessarily make the information any less valuable, but it's a smart idea to view it with a skeptical eye.

Once you've found a site you trust, Lewis says, check out the links it offers. It's a pretty sure bet that these sites are equally reliable.

Books on cancer or other illnesses often include a list of further reading or references. Lewis says this is another good place to check for Web sites and help narrow your search.

Stick with Favorites
One site is not going to answer all of your questions. You will probably need to refer to one site for information on scientific advancements, another for dealing with the side effects of chemo, etc. That said, Lewis says it's a good idea to choose some favorite sites and refer to them consistently.

She says there are more than 100,000 health-related Web sites and trying to crosscheck every fact on every site can be overwhelming and counterproductive. Even after you have a handful of favorites, they can still contain a mammoth amount of information. Lewis recommends comparing notes on sites with friends or family to see if you've missed anything or misunderstood anything.

Resist the Urge to Self-Diagnose
Lewis says there is a fine line between participating in treatment decisions and directing the treatment yourself. Lewis explains that the Internet is empowering patients and helping them make better use of the increasingly limited time they have with doctors, but those in the medical community are concerned that people may be tryng to diagnose themselves. Doctors say they have to spend valuable time with the patient talking them out of what they think they know before addressing the real situation.

Take Advantage of 24/7Support
While you need to leave medical advice to your doctor, don't hesitate to jump into discussion boards and chat rooms with gusto.

Lewis says online chat rooms are truly an amazing phenomenon, allowing strangers from opposite sides of the country to exchange information and stories instantly.

She also says the anonymity of the Internet allows people to be more candid and to begin sharing right away. Even better, you have the chance to share with women who have been in your shoes.

Lewis says discussion boards are the perfect forum for cancer victims to unload fears and concerns. Computer users can post electronic notes for others to read and share their opinions.

She explains that participating in online chat rooms and discussion boards is safe because you control how much identifying information you share.