Cancer or any life- threatening illness isn’t something that you would want to immediately share in public. If anything, it’s something that you would want to hide. In my case, I didn’t hide it. In fact, many people knew about it. But I sure didn’t post it in Facebook.
In a time when we are all so busy keeping our digital identities pleasing and likeable, posting anything that you’re struggling with, especially an illness of whatever kind, can be seen as a downer. “Good vibes only” has become the millennials’ social policy. We all want to appear happy and successful on screen. As much as possible, we hide whatever that isn’t nice about us and only show the best versions of ourselves.
Among the many things that were running through my head after I received my diagnosis, one stood out: how and what am I going to tell people about my condition. It went fast with my family and close relatives, then to my very, very close friends, and then to people at work. But the chain had to stop. I didn’t have enough energy to deal with other people’s reactions, yet.
Receiving such diagnosis makes social media not a priority. My priority was to come out alive, period. Bahala pud nang Facebook (I don’t care about Facebook), I told myself. But as much as I tried to shrug it off, somehow, I felt pressured to post something about it. Why, when did social media became this demanding? I don’t know, but it came that way to me. How was I supposed to introduce myself as a cancer patient? After all, no one likes cancer in Facebook.
“Di nimu kailangan i-post na sa Facebook” (You don’t have to post it in Facebook), my sister finally broke to me. A reality check saved my dilemma: It is never my responsibility to post everything about my life in social media.
So I went with it. I was keeping it safe the whole time. I tried my best to make my profile look “low” and “normal”. I continued sharing posts that seemed interesting and relevant. As simple as it may seem, doing that was hard – what with all the psychological impact of cancer and social media alone.
I was constantly bothered by the Facebook prompt that kept flashing at me every time I logged in: “What’s on your mind?”
Should I say – feeling like a cancer patient? But I have always been a private person. Never have I updated my status with any of my personal struggles or achievements. I’m sorry Facebook, but I have a lot of things on my mind right now. I’m not sure if you would want to hear any of it.
It was a good thing though. At least in Facebook I still didn’t have cancer. My profile looked simple and easily going with the flow. But in reality, my life was a lot more complicated. Yes I was constantly traveling, but not for pleasure. I was treading between oncology units in Ormoc and Cebu. When I’m at home, I was always pinned down at bed with the ceiling of my room and the bookshelf at the foot of my bed as my view. I was constantly nauseas and too exhausted to even get up to eat or take a bath. I learned how easy it is to fake one’s digital life.
As my treatment became more intense, so did despair became darker. I noticed Facebook became one of the contributing factors. Every time I logged out of my account, I would always end up crying. It constantly stirred negative emotions in me as I browse through and see pictures of smiling, healthy young people out in the world, even people getting busy and crazy pursuing their passion in life. Facebook became a brutal reminder of my life B.C. (before cancer), and the kind of life that I don’t and should have had.
I felt the urgent need to get rid of those heavy emotions or else, I thought, I would explode. So I let go. After spending the most dragging months of my life, I finally had the courage to click “deactivate”. Ah, the little things we do to survive! I told myself that I would only comeback once I’m ready and better.
At first, I still felt the constant urge to ‘update’ my digital life. But in my kind of situation, what good could I possibly update my profile with? As time went by, I got used to being unplugged and discovered a different kind of peace. I spent my time following and reading real stories of cancer patients and survivors through books and Instagram.
As much as we want to make sure our “presence” is felt and seen in social media, I realized how easy it is to slip in and out of it without letting other people notice. This could be attributable to the hundreds to thousands of “friends” that we have that we barely get to notice their real lives.
Meanwhile, concerned friends of mine who knew what I was struggling with kept sending me personal messages asking about my current condition. But to answer their question kumusta?/ how are you? felt like answering a difficult essay in my literature class. I would stare at it for a long time – hours or days – before I could find the decent words to respond.
Most of the time, if not all the time, “Okay” came in handy as a reply – “Okay ra… / Okay lang… ”But it meant a lot of things. Sometimes my “okay” meant I’m just tired and I don’t know what my future looks like. Sometimes it meant I’m happy to be at home and not in chemo. Sometimes “okay” meant that I don’t have the appetite for food today or maybe that the steroids are kicking in that it just made me ate a plate full of Mama’s pancit bihon. Sometimes it meant that I don’t anymore recognize myself. But sometimes, “okay” simply meant I’m really okay and glad to be alive. I admit to have overused the word ‘okay’.
Almost a year after my diagnosis, I was still at peace of not being in Facebook, but I started feeling the compulsion to write about my experience. During the first few months into my intense treatment, I didn’t feel like writing simply because my hands were too weak to write and my mind too exhausted to think. But as I went into maintenance phase, slowly, I started gaining back the strength I so long desired. So I did what I have strongly wanted to do – I wrote about it. But still didn’t share it in social media.
To my surprise, I was able to publish more entries than I ever thought I could. I didn’t care about statistics – how many likes, views or followers I got. I just wanted to write. But when I was working on my piece about being a young adult with cancer in this country, I felt the need to be heard. Not only by some random writers who happen to stumble across my work in WordPress, but by the very people who knows and have known me.
Sharing that entry in Facebook was nerve- wracking for me. I knew that once I click “share”, that’s it. I was expecting all the possible reactions – from shocked to not so shocked to super shocked. I know, to know someone your age with cancer is indeed a shocking experience. For the first time since my diagnosis, lots of people who have known me were reaching out to me sending me encouragement and prayers.
Some even preached right on. It’s not the last thing that we need, but I realized that for struggling people, preaching is definitely not the first thing that we would want to digest in. Don’t get me wrong, I know the significance of preaching. I guess sometimes, we tend to say the words we think could make us feel better without trying to know if it would do the same for the other person. Still, I appreciated the effort as they were all said with purely good intentions.
Many people were telling me words like “warrior” or “strong”. But what they probably didn’t know was how I saw myself as the weakest when all these started. My “battle” actually consisted more of following treatment protocol and doctor’s orders – the kind of battle wherein you don’t really feel in control of anything.
My diagnosis also made me realize how distant my friends were to me. It was hard to talk about cancer even to people I consider close. But when some of them who already knew about my condition apologized for not reaching out sooner, I accepted it and told them I understand. I really do. I would’ve probably fallen to the same mistake if I were in their position.
Some people were honest enough to tell me how they can’t find the right words to say to me. To be honest, I appreciate more the honesty. I appreciate that they didn’t had to pretend they knew exactly how it feels to go through what I go through.
Sharing my experience in Facebook has also produced unexpected positive effects on me. More than peace, I felt a sense of liberty just by letting people know what I have been struggling with. All of a sudden, I found myself reconnecting with the friends I haven’t had contact for months, or even years, and realized that the friendship is still there.
My site’s stats were on a traffic for the first time. It was able to reach hundreds of people than I ever thought it could. So much so that some people were generous enough to give me donations, even people I haven’t met yet! I didn’t even know how to properly thank them as I never saw this coming. It was never my intention to ask money from people. I only wanted to share my experience, that’s all. We struggled financially because of my diagnosis, but thank goodness we never reached the point of nothingness. We, people, are indeed naturally generous.
Social media has never been my comfort zone. I thought it would never be. For a long time, the disparity between my digital and real identity have grown bigger because of my diagnosis. But now, every time I log in to my Facebook, I feel a sense of satisfaction seeing that my digital life is a lot more synchronized to my real one. Though it felt good to be back, I have to admit, I felt best when I wasn’t there.