Social media can inspire action on and offline

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have the potential to reach thousands of people in a few hours, and help raise crucial awareness around cancer-related causes.

How do you motivate someone to join a bone marrow registry on the off-chance that their stem cells are a genetic match for a stranger with leukaemia? How about getting hundreds of people to do the same within just a few weeks?

For Matthew MacDonald and Andrew Melck, two graduates in their twenties who were recently diagnosed with leukemia – social media was the answer. In association with The Sunflower Fund, they set out to find genetic donor matches via social media channels, including a Facebook page called Angels for Andrew, and a purpose-built website, the MacAttack Challenge. The two popular young men teamed up on events like pirate-themed donor drives, and used an online hash tagging device on Facebook and Instagram to make key messages about their campaign searchable on the internet.

Awareness about leukaemia spread throughout the country as the MacAttack Challenge and Angels for Andrew gained traction on and offline. Compatible stem cell donors were soon found for MacDonald and Melck, against incredible odds. Both men are currently being prepared for stem cell transplants.

Social media is a vital tool in The Sunflower Fund’s mission to educate and register stem cell donors, says Michal Turner, who manages the organisation’s social media platforms. “We craft all our campaigns and social posts to raise awareness and educate the general public.”

But what about leukaemia patients with fewer friends – both inside and outside Facebook networks? “Success stories are usually linked to a specific patient,” says Turner. “We always need to communicate to the general public that you may be motivated by a specific patient, but you need to join understanding that you need to be available for whoever you match.” The organisation’s main goal is to grow the registry, but any online engagement is beneficial, says Turner, even if it means that people spread the message online but are not able to register as a donor.

Cancer.vive is another organisation that is increasingly leveraging social media in its awareness campaigns. “Our reach has really jumped,” says CEO, Janie Du Plessis. Cancer.vive PR value has gone from an estimated R15-20 million per year on average to around R100 million since social media became part of their marketing plan.

January 2016 figures put the world’s active social media users at 2.3 billion – that is a lot of potential donors and supporters. But for Cancer.vive and other similar initiatives, inspiring people to action is the next, vital step in online engagement. Cancer.vive’s most popular event involves a 2 000 kilometre motorbike journey across South Africa to raise awareness about cancer. The annual Cancer.vive Awareness Rally which runs in September aims to inform and empower communities across South Africa about cancer survival by driving home the importance of early detection and appropriate treatment.

“We’ve started involving other projects as Cancer.vive has grown”, says the organisation’s CEO, Janie Du Plessis. Training doctors and nurses in local clinics and addressing the stigmas that often go with cancer are some of the offshoots from the all-popular motorbike journey.

“The magic of it is you have to qualify to belong to Cancer.vive. If you want to be a volunteer and make a difference, you’ve got to raise R25 000 in cash – and if you do that, you can join.”

Cancer.vive has a dedicated digital and social media team who intensify their efforts as the motorbike rally approaches each year. People Living with Cancer – the umbrella organisation under which Cancer.vive belongs – has taken an aggressive approach to social media in recent years, says Du Plessis.

Not everyone wants to travel 2 000 kilometres on a motorbike to do their bit for cancer awareness, of course. “There are toll-free helplines that people offer to staff after hearing about them through social media. We have the advocates, the carers, the awareness raisers… They all come through social media. We only have four employees.”

“Social media has tremendous potential for education and awareness-raising,” says Dr Ernst Marais, COO of ICON, we promote a holistic approach to the cancer journey including building psychosocial support networks for patients. Our Facebook page and social media presence aims to support and amplify campaigns such as Cancer.vive and the Sunflower Fund, as well as for offering patient support and encouragement.

“We find that Facebook is increasingly becoming a platform for providing support to cancer patients and their families,” says Marais. “Creating and maintaining momentum within a social media campaign requires a fair amount of investment – in terms of both time and money. But there’s no doubt that, when utilised well, social media can be a cost-effective tool with enormous reach.”