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Making friends with cancer: the role of social media in serious illness

Laura Price talks about how social media has helped her talk about her breast cancer, and connect her to a 'cancer community'.

Laura Price talks about how social media has helped her talk about her breast cancer, and connect her to a 'cancer community'. 

A few weeks ago back in my hometown of Huddersfield I bumped into a girl from school. I hadn’t seen her for at least 15 years and could barely remember her name, but I did the courteous thing and said “Hi, how are you?”

“I’m fine” she nodded. “But how about you? Are you fully better now? I’ve been following your blog.”

And that’s when I realised just how far-reaching and powerful social media can be. It may seem no big deal that a girl from my hometown with whom I no doubt share the odd mutual Facebook friend is following my cancer story online, but 10 years ago this would never have happened. Ten years ago the only way this girl would have known about my illness is if she’d read an article in the local paper or if my mum had bumped into her auntie’s cousin’s sister’s best friend’s boyfriend’s dogsitter in Sainsbury’s and told her the news.

That’s just one example of how the internet has had an impact on my cancer experience, but in fact social media has completely changed the way we deal with serious illness. Individual blogs and networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have made it possible not only to give our families and friends a running commentary of exactly how we’re doing (when we don’t feel like speaking to them one by one over the phone), but also, perhaps more importantly, they’ve made it possible for us to find support from people going through similar experiences around the world.

As a 29-year-old, being diagnosed last June with a disease that primarily affects women over 50 I naturally felt isolated. Everyone was shocked: I was simply too young for breast cancer. In the hospital waiting room at The Christie cancer hospital in Manchester, most of the other patients were at least double my age. I had the support of my wonderful family and friends but there wasn’t anyone my own age that really understood what I was going through.

Over the next 10 months however I developed a huge network of online friends, mostly fellow breast cancer patients close to my age in the UK, USA, Canada and Europe. My real-life friends were always there to take me for coffee and cheer me up but my online buddies filled an important gap – supporting me and reassuring me by sharing tales of hair growth, hair loss, chemotherapy side effects and wonky boobs.

I was fortunate enough to have no major complications during my surgery and treatment, but fellow cancer patients have often asked questions in our online groups that they couldn’t ask their doctors, and all have said they feel comforted by the warmth and overwhelming support of the other members of the group. I cannot over-stress the relief that comes from knowing you are not the only one in the world suffering from a particular thing that may seem so rare and unusual at first glance.

Granted, I have only met a tiny handful of these online friends in person, but through a constant stream of Instagram photos, private messages and blog posts, I feel like I’ve been through their cancer journeys with them as they have through mine. It’s a funny kind of friendship – a new and modern kind of friendship – but it’s a friendship that works. There’s a genuine joy in the group when good news is given and sadly all too often there is bad news that’s met with real heartfelt sadness.

Of course there are downsides to relying on social media in illness. These online support groups can be all consuming and I could spend all day trying to reply to every single comment or question. I have to draw the line somewhere and take time out because – if nothing else – it gets depressing. Cancer is not my life after all. But when I need it or when I want to help others I know that just with the click of a button I can make someone across the world feel less alone, and that’s a good feeling.

Social media isn’t for everyone – I know that. Call it intrusive, an invasion of privacy if you like. The fact is it has helped me immeasurably.

So if I could give just one piece of advice to newly diagnosed cancer patients, it would be this: make some new friends. Find your own cancer community, whether it’s online or in person. You’ll feel better for it.

Laura also writes blogs for two other websites. You can read more from her at:

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/laura-price/

www.thebigscarycword.wordpress.com

 

Discover More from Laura Price

Dive deeper into Laura's insights and experiences on a variety of topics by visiting her blogs. Explore her latest articles and join the conversation at Huff Post UK and The Big Scary C-Word.

Laura's story on HuffPostUK

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