Planet Cancer’s supportive and empathetic network

Planet Cancer’s social network is uniquely targeted towards young people, those in their 20s and 30s, who have been diagnosed with cancer.

With humor, style and community management, the network has grown to more than 3000 members. How do they do it? Planet Cancer’s busy founder and executive director, Heidi Adams, took time to tell us what makes Planet Cancer so successful.

Why did Planet Cancer choose to start a social network?
To provide a space for young adults with cancer to interact, share, support and encourage each other during and beyond their cancer experience. Young adults get lost in the medical system, either surrounded by small children or older adults, with little opportunity to find each other for critical peer support. Since they can’t get that support in the real world, we offer it virtually via My Planet!

While dealing with a serious subject, the network has a somewhat lighthearted tone. How did you develop that?
Humor is a very powerful coping tool. When you receive a cancer diagnosis, it’s easy to feel powerless and completely out of control; we feel that humor allows us to demystify this really scary thing. By laughing at cancer, we are basically giving cancer the finger — saying that cancer doesn’t have the power, we have the power. Also, approaching serious things with irreverence and humor is a really typical young adult approach, so it’s just a reflection of our audience.

How did you choose to develop the network’s appearance?
The look is just an extension of our logo and brand identity. Clean, modern, consistent with our logo.

How is a social network different than a traditional support group?
The difference with a social network is its flexibility: First the 24/7 support-on-demand aspect: If a young adults wakes up with the heebie-jeebies at 3 a.m., they will go online to find someone else who is up, whether they’re across town or halfway around the world.

Also, a social network allows the user to define the experience rather than have it done for them, like in a traditional support group. They allow the individual to decide what information to focus on and share (diagnosis, information, treatment, fears, issues) as well as how to reveal it and to whom (blog, photo, forum posting, private message, group membership).

Again, for young adults with cancer, it’s establishing that element of control.

What network features do you see your members using the most?
Blogs. Posting photos. Giving each other shout-outs on their walls. And forming groups: We have all kinds of groups formed around everything from diagnosis to geography to “Melissas who have cancer” to “People who couldn’t have made it through this without their pets!”

What advice would you give to someone looking to start a social network around a disease or disorder?
Think through as much as possible what people, organizations or institutions might want to use your social network for. Try to anticipate possible conflicts and establish policies in advance about how to deal with them. Also remember that, with diseases, you should be vigilant with your social network’s privacy to protect your members’ health information. Be clear about your purpose, stay true to it, and be vigilant in protecting your members, especially if you’re dealing with a vulnerable population.

About the Author:

Laura Oppenheimer – who has written posts on Ning's Official Blog on Social Networking Sites.