Finding Hope and Healing in Cyberspace
by Sigourney Cheek
A year of cancer and chemo is wrenching. Yet, from another angle, my struggle was exhilarating on every level.
Any cancer survivor can tell you a story about a life-altering experience. You stand at the door of death and then survive and have another shot at life. The rigors of treatment and joys of winning the war change who you are.
The day of discovery is etched into my brain. The sickening, suspended anxiety of the first doctor’s visit sets the scene. The shock, the disbelief of the diagnosis, the horror of the cancer word, the grossness of the blood and needles and invasion of your body, and the knowledge that this is just the beginning leave you in a state of panic. The confusing medical terminology, the misery of knowing you are the sick, the stark hospital waiting rooms full of people with jaundiced skin and no hair, the hours in antiseptic examination rooms, the interruption of your daily routine, and the resulting isolation become the focus of your day. Then family and friends rally to the call, offering comfort. People pray for you, and you try to find meaning behind the concept. If you open up to them, you let in a powerful force, but you lack the stamina to respond.
I thought hard before composing a short summary of my prognosis. Then, with the touch of a button, I sent the message out through my computer.
Usually the zaps of chemo and slow recovery before the next round are a lonely experience. What prompted me to write my story is that I found a way of sharing my journey, of sharing the hard times and the heart tugs, the tears and the laughter. By happenstance, I found an antidote for the isolation of illness.
In the first week of discovery, I received three different diagnoses ranging from a benign “watchful-waiting” cancer to a five-to-eight-months-to-live cancer.
So confusing. I was exhausted. I wanted my friends to be informed, but after one phone call about the latest doctor’s visit, I’d have no energy for a repeat performance. My predisposition to share, to be open, was a godsend from the start. I created a contact list in my e-mail program and filled in the names of eighteen friends. I was nervous, almost scared, writing the first e-mail. In the South, we’re supposed to be private about a personal crisis. We’re supposed to shrug it off with, “I’m just fine,” aren’t we? (I’ve only lived here for thirty-eight years, so I’m a novice.)
I thought hard before composing a short summary of my prognosis. Then, with the touch of a button, I sent the message out through my computer, and everyone on my list was instantly on the same page. I had exposed myself to my friends, and they loved having the curtains opened and being let in. They not only responded with enthusiasm, but also forwarded the message to other friends who e-mailed back and asked to be added to the list. By the next e-mail, the contact list was up to forty-five. My friends wanted to know when I was having a treatment, and then, how I was feeling. They wanted to keep in touch without invading my space and disturbing my afternoon naps.
Medicine controlled my cancer, but e-mail was my salvation, my lifeline to a close community of friends who shared my struggle. After my first short, hesitant message, I knew I was on to something. I knew the instant messaging, the 24-hour access to the computer, and the informality of the dialogue created a world outside my bedroom where, still in my pajamas, I could keep in touch with an ever-growing network of friends. By giving away, I received in abundance.
I kept my messages upbeat. By presenting my struggle with a positive spin, my mind and body embraced the attitude as well. The messages my friends sent back were soothing, nurturing, and asking for more. As the list kept expanding, the writing back and forth evolved as well, delving deeper into the innermost secret parts of my life and their lives. Energy began to build. A community began to grow, a community of healing formed in cyberspace. The e-mail chain turned into a shared circle. The positive feedback transformed into healing prayer.
By the end of the year, my contact group had evolved into 160 people. My cyberspace community embraced me and kept me warm during a long, challenging year. It was therapy for me, but the greatest lesson I learned was the positive energy shared by everyone who was engaged in my recovery.
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Note: Sigourney Cheek is a Nashville-based author and philanthropist. She is also a B-cell lymphoma survivor. To learn more about Sigourney, visit her website, patientsiggy.com.
Excerpted with permission from Patient Siggy: Hope and Healing in Cyberspace by Sigourney Cheek, copyright © 2008 by Sigourney Cheek.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2010.