Status Update: Dealing With Cancer On Facebook

I am thankful for Facebook this thanksgiving. It’s not the neurotic extrovert contact opportunity but the reason for this gratitude is the group support it provided me as I battled breast cancer starting last summer. I have heard lots of rants about how face book friends aren’t really friends or that whole idea is just a virtual fantasy but after going through cancer and sharing it openly on Facebook, I can vow to the positive effects of my FB groupies.
Face book is real for if it weren’t for the comforting presence of my face book friends who cheered me on every day, I would have struggled to survive and thrive during the year from “hell” of cancer treatments. I do have “real” friends, the ones that brought me food and visited the hospital but there is tremendous value to “virtual” friendships.
Prior to last year, I was a cautious user of face book. I watched what I posted and made friends with very few select people that I felt I needed to stay connected with. I made friends only with people I knew quite well in real life. My list of friends therefore wasn’t rapidly expanding and I used to be fascinated by those who had upward of 300 friends . I was right around the average 150 or so. I also was a bit paranoid about my privacy while using Facebook.
I did reconnect with many of my college friends through it. My page would contain mostly pictures of my kids, an odd quote or some mundane detail of my daily grind, but stayed away from gastronomical explorations.
July 15th , 2013 ended up being a day the redefined my life and in its wake my approach to FB.
A friend of mine had posted this note on my wall earlier that day.
“A well developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tight rope of life”
She and I had reconnected after 20 some years through face book and were thrilled to have had met each other again. I was the funny one of the duo.
I responded “this is the only known relationship to the pole I have !”, a few other friends quipped about pole dancing and there was a group chuckle.
An hour later, my surgeon called to confirm the diagnosis of cancer and the rope of life felt taut.
I tried to make sense of what had happened and how to cope. Few days blended together under the heat of stress and uncertainty melting into an anxious fortnight. I regrouped and realized I needed support and I needed friends and that I needed to fall back on my sense of humor to get through this. Where could I reach out to find a group of people that care about me ? How can I disseminate information to my friends and family without having to take individual phone calls and narrating the diagnosis story over and over again while I recovered from this shock. I felt the need to express myself, my grief and suffering , my fight and face book gave me the space I needed.

Facebook was the answer. Initially I was hesitant to put myself out in the open with all my vulnerabilities. I thought of all pictures people posting their best on FB while I will be going through physical mutilation and anguish in months to follow. Would I be able to cope with information? Would I be able to survive the news feed, flip through pictures of others on vacation while I am home sick as a dog with chemotherapy. Will I be able to tolerate “bad hair day rants” while I am bald ?
Should I even be on face book this year?
I have always been an extrovert. I like people and from daily living to my profession as a psychiatrist, my life is mostly talking to people. I had faith in human connection and I took a leap of faith and disclosed what had happened on facebook. As a psychiatrist, I understood the value of group support and the ability to narrate my own story. I started a blog too which I would post on my wall.
It was the best thing I ever did. There was a huge outpouring of support. I felt I truly belonged, was valued and care for. Coming out on face book brought me positive energy. Sure none of them could hold my hand but I felt their “virtual” presence each day.
Supportive notes, inspirational quotes, blessing and prayers flooded my wall. My wall became the story of my fight as the year unfolded.
A week after my diagnosis I posted a new profile picture with short bob and long tresses were donated to locks of love. I had always had long thick beautiful hair-commercial, kind of hair. For me getting them cut was a concrete way of accepting “I have cancer”. The wall was on fire with comments about how great I looked, with underpinnings of we love you for what you are about to go through.
It was official, everyone now knew I had cancer and will go bald after the surgery. I was trying to keep a brave face and have fun with the hand I was dealt. My husband was trying to cope and so was I. Next 10 days were filled with anxiety and tests. No time for updates. We were preparing for the on sloth of brutal treatment.
I posted a picture of my daughter donning the similar hair cut. It was a happy picture but highlighted the sad reality that mommy will be out of commission soon and dad doesn’t know how to do her hair…so shorter the better. The stress of having a mom with cancer was unfolding on my wall in real time.
We were trying to have quality time and stay busy. Surgery, the mastectomy scheduled for the 8th. It was better to stay distracted and pretend all was well. I posted a family photo, I wanted us to have as many as possible. I was scared.
On August 8th, I posted this obituary of my breast.
Lt. Colonel Mammary G.
The Twin of the Lt. (only surviving family) would like to report the unfortunate demise of Lt. Col. Mammary G. on August 8th, 2013 at the University Hospital. The services of the Lt. are acknowledged and regarded by those who knew her well. Besides performing aesthetic duties for a number of years, the Lt. served two tours of lactational duties from 2007-2008 and then again from 2011-2012 with honorable discharge both times. Lt will be recognized by the highest honor and a silicone trophy will be erected at the grave site.
In lieu of flowers, please send donations to Dr. Plastic’s office.

A month after the surgery as I was trying to stay positive in my fight, I posted this on my wall.
The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company, a church, a home. The remarkable thing is that we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change the past. We cannot change the fact that people will act a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it. And so it is with you. We are in charge of our attitudes. –Charles Swindoll in The Newsletter
My posts changed to include gratitude and inspiration. Things I posted were notes of my attitude as I went through treatments, gut wrenching and heart wrenching.
“Thank you God that I am alive, that I am pain free today , that I am able eat food and enjoy it , that I have support and love of many and great doctors who care and I can smile.”
Occasionally I posted a picture from the chemotherapy suite. I was training for a 5k run when cancer hit, I wasn’t well enough to run it but instead Walked 5 k. That day my wall flooded with encouragement.
I dyed my hair pink before they fell out. Those pictures were “liked” by a huge number.
Then I started to receive pick me up and cancer gift and enjoyed posting those pics on the wall.
I would share my anxieties and my reality, tears and joy with my friends. As treatment continued, the status updates became a ritual and a source of joy. I wasn’t well enough to do much except for sitting on my laptop so facebook was my contact to the outside world.
I started getting friend requests from friends of friends who would see my posts in their feed. People who barely knew me joined me in my fight and cheered me on. The sharing lessened the burden of grueling treatments. Kind thoughts would flood in comments as I would relate my nauseous post chemo recovery on my wall.
The year was long and excruciating but facebook helped me get through it. The love, the encouragement and support I received was phenomenal and it couldnt have been possible without this thing called “Facebook”. So yes it takes up time, it can be annoying, we are pitched products on it, and the news feed can be disorienting but this year I am thankful for Facebook and Mr Zuckerberg and all my facebook friends . Facebook helped me survive cancer and that is my honest opinion.


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