The sum of our parts
Just last night, I found myself involved in several conversations at once. They included discussions of lutefisk, reconstructive surgery, boring holiday letters, snail-mail, DADT, Iraq, oatmeal, foot fractures, blizzards, the Hallelujah Chorus, Bon Jovi, parenthood, divorce, and the winter solstice lunar eclipse that most of us didn’t see because of the weather. No, I wasn’t sipping eggnog at a Christmas party. I was on Facebook, roaming about, saying hello to my peeps and scattering comments hither and thither. Where else could you have so much fun and discuss current affairs while basking in the comforting light of your computer screen?
Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I counted myself as fairly solid in my geekitude quotient because I had constructed my own website, wrestled Photoshop into submission, sent all manner of missives and documents by email, paid my bills online, and updated my cellphone service, all from my keyboard. I admit that my acquisition of the cellphone was done because my job required it, but I had grown rather fond of it despite my initial reluctance. I did plenty of social networking the old-fashioned way — in person — so, with a few emails now and then, I didn’t need any other kind. After I was diagnosed, all that was about to change.
A web by any other name
There is a scene in one of J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter novels in which Harry finds an old, apparently blank journal. He sits down to write in it, and quickly learns that it will write back to him. He doesn’t know yet that his unseen correspondent is really an earlier incarnation of his arch enemy, Lord Voldemort, but when Harry is unwittingly sucked into the book and back in time, the message is clear: unseen companions who write back to you are not to be trusted.
Like Tom Riddle’s journal, the Internet can lead to life-threatening harm, as well as benign enjoyment, and a lot of justifiable caveats get lobbed at the Web and its online social media. The old telephone ad tagline to “reach out an touch” has a whole new meaning in cyberspace. But when I got off the phone with the doctor who told me that my biopsy was positive, the first thing I did was reach out. Despite a reflex to crawl under the covers and not come out, I really did not want to be alone. I picked up the phone and called a close friend. In fact, I called several. And the more sympathetic souls I reached out to, the more I felt like I could cope with my calamity. Even if you wanted to be alone with your cancer, you can’t be anyway. The tentacles of its effect on you reach into every area of your life, and you have to negotiate them, whether you want to or not. So, you may as well make it work for you.
The next thing I did was boot up my computer. What better way is there to access so much information anytime you want to while sitting in your jammies? My search quickly led me to a new frontier, and I soon signed up, not without a little trepidation, for membership in an online forum of others, hundreds of others around the world, who were also dealing with breast cancer.
Women are natural social networkers. We do it all the time. We’re good at it. And women in a crisis know how to circle the wagons and protect each other. In fact, I found a thread on the forum called, “Circling the Wagons.” I also found instant kinship, empathy, compassion, humor and generosity. I found that even in my novice state, I could offer something useful to someone else, and that made me feel less afraid, less a hapless victim of catastrophy.
Midnight at the Oasis
It’s impossible to describe how comforting it is to be awake in the middle of the night, having a meltdown about the alien residing in your cells, and finding several other women to whom you do not have to explain your insomnia. Some of the best and most therapeutic conversations I had in my forums took place at three in the morning, laughing and groaning and commiserating with other women in the same situation. Yes, laughing! Making bad jokes, forming cyber-armies of lopsided amazons with pitchforks and garden implements to take revenge on those we encountered in our lives who were mean, inept, thoughtless or infuriating. Most of the truly helpful information I needed was provided by others with breast cancer, both long-term survivors and those of us going through active treatment. Even the most perfect oncologist is not likely to know that a daub of Oragel is just the thing to relieve that stinging, relentless pain in your nipple after surgery.
Thanks to my cyber sisters, I was able to make choices and decisions that lessened the impact of breast cancer and its treatment on my life. Thanks to my cyber sisters, I started a blog, read and corresponded with other women bloggers, sharpened my research skills, and signed up for Facebook to continue these friendships. Say what you will about Facebook, Twitter and their ilk — and there is plenty to say — but my friendships with forum and blog-writing sisters has deepened there, and through them, I have found new friends whose intelligence, knowledge, resilience, and candor enrich my life on a daily basis. I have even been fortunate enough to meet some of them in person, with plans to meet many more.
Of course, there’s a big difference between in-person friendship and cyberhood. The biggest one is geography. How else would I now have friends in Australia, Canada, India, Scotland and the UK without getting on a plane? With Skype, we can even see each other and talk face to face. I for one am not worried that the internet is narrowing my life or diluting my ability to communicate. Far from it. If anything, I can be a better friend to more people, with whom I know more and share more than I do with my neighbors across the street. Rather, my neighborhood has enlarged exponentially. Sure, there is unpleasantness, disagreement, pettiness and misunderstanding on occasion. But it’s a lot easier to un-friend some miserable sod on Facebook than it is to avoid the nitwit who ran over my lilac bush. If Harry Potter had had a Delete button, his life would have been much easier. But by and large, the Web I have experienced through social media is like the branches and roots of neighboring trees, crisscrossing and growing together in an ecosystem of infinite possibility.
And so, I want to thank my cyber sisters and brothers. I don’t care if the medium of our friendship is the ether of cyberspace or the gigabytes in my computer. My affection for you is real. So is the sanity that you have helped me maintain through the dark wood of cancer. There’s nothing virtual about it. In fact, more than ever, I love you to bits. See you in the ‘hood.
Thanks to Anna, whose recent blog post on The Cancer Culture Chronicles prompted me to finally put this in bits and bytes.
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