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.

Article Details

How to Cite
Varela-Rodríguez, M., & Vicente-Mariño, M. (2023). Images Published by Cancer Patients in Social Media and Their Reception: A Systematic Review. Review of Communication Research, 11, 33–64. Retrieved from
Visual Communication Studies
Author Biographies

Miguel Varela-Rodríguez, Department of Sociology and Social Work, University of Valladolid, Valladolid, Spain

Miguel Varela-Rodríguez is a sociologist and Adjunct Professor at the Department of Sociology at the Universidad de Valladolid, Spain, where he is a PhD candidate. His researcher looks at visual discourses, with special attention to social media and digital technologies applied to peace work and the sociology of health. With an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography by University of the Arts London and an MSc in Peace and Development Work by Linnaeus University, he is a member of the International Visual Sociology Association and the European Sociological Association.

Miguel Vicente-Mariño, Department of Sociology and Social Work, University of Valladolid, Valladolid, Spain

Miguel Vicente-Mariño is an Associate Professor at the University of Valladolid, currently acting as Head of Department of Sociology and Social Work and Coordinator of the Recognized Research Group in Applied Social Sciences. Holding a PhD in Audiovisual Communication from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, his lines of research focus on audiences’ inquiry and content analysis of mass media and digital social networks, with special attention to methodological innovations and software tools.


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