Facebook Helps Leukemia Sufferer Cope

By Julie D. Andrews 

Recent college graduate Suleika Jaouad waited until after she had undergone chemotherapy — and been told by doctors that the treatment had not taken — to consider how to alert her 1,500 Facebook friends to the news.

At first, while the then-22-year-old woman was in the oncology unit of a hospital, her Facebook page remained as it had always been — reflective of happiness, joy, love, health. It still showed pictures of her boyfriend, the romantic streets of Paris, and her dog. In reality, she was undergoing intense chemotherapy at the time.

Not long after she had first found out that she had been diagnosed with leukemia a year ago and began undergoing treatment, Jaouad’s first decision was to deactivate her Facebook account. She wrote on The New York TimesWell blog:

What most of my friends couldn’t have known was that this person no longer existed. Looking at pictures of my healthy, pre-cancer self stirred uncomfortable emotions.

When doctors announced five weeks into her first hospitalization that the chemotherapy treatment was not working, Jaouad reconsidered. She went back to Facebook, and she logged in.

Still, even then, when she first wanted to begin filling her friends in on her diagnosis — her real-life status update — she didn’t outright announce her diagnosis by way of a text update.

Instead, the first hint at her diagnosis was a photo she posted of herself wearing a pink scarf covering her head, with no signs of her long wavy hair peeking from beneath.

After a while, “not updating my profile to reflect my new reality felt inauthentic, even dishonest,” wrote Jaouad.

At last, she let go of what she called her “doctored” identity on Facebook and began posting updates on what was really going on with her day-to-day, clumps of hair falling out and all.

With social networks, though, sharing hard news can be easier. You don’t have to look anyone in the eye — you can just put out there, into the universe, what is really going on with you.

What Jaouad found when she opened up about her condition on Facebook was a community ready to embrace her as she faced this new challenge in life — caretakers and fellow cancer patients, friends and family, all were there waiting to offer support and share advice. She wrote:

There’s been a liberation in the type of public honesty you can engage in on social media. In some ways venturing back…has been better therapy than any prescription.

Follow the 23-year-old from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., as she chronicles her battle with cancer for The New York Times weekly through her “Life, Interrupted” blog.

Readers: Do you have friends who announced serious news on Facebook? What was your reaction? Did it take you by surprise? Was it jarring?