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Bad News: It's Spreading


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I don't have cancer. Thank God. But I'm 40 years old and now know a few friends and acquaintances my age who have it, or who have "beaten" it.

Today, on Facebook, I read a message from a friend's wife about the friends' latest scan. Bad news: New tumors. This after many hopeful posts in the past several weeks leading up to the latest scans. They were hoping the cancer had gone away, although there were symptoms that indicated something was wrong. So they weren't completely blind-sided. Me? Having shared their hope, I feel like the wind's been knocked out of me.

It'll pass, and quickly, for me. They'll have to live through this, for how long nobody knows. But today's news was grim.

It was delivered via a status update on Facebook.

I want to be angry at the method of delivery. I want to blame social media, talk about "social graces" and whatnot. But Facebook is just the vehicle. Would email be any better? No. A handwritten letter? Too slow.

How do you respond to this sort of news, whatever the forum and method of transmission? It's not as though I've never thought about this question. But today, I find myself stumped. And that makes me angry, because I feel like I should offer some words of comfort.

I don't know how. Maybe I'm more reluctant to share my measly morsels of uplift via a Facebook comment than the friend's wife was to share them via a status update. Isn't that churlish of me? I should just post something, but I feel inadequate.

So tell me: Those of you who have shared bad health-related news via Facebook, what were you hoping for in terms of a response? Did you hope your FB "friends" would offer words of comfort in the comments? Did you want them to call, or write a letter? Were you hoping they'd just pray and keep it to themselves?

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I'd probably do email and phone calls depending on the friendship level, but broadcasting via FB or Twitter does have an advantage if you are in the state of mind (that numb time after you get the bad news) that you really don't want to interact even with friends. You just want to cocoon for a bit - or hid inside a fortress of solitude. Hopefully your friends will understand why you aren't answering the phone and will still be available for the time that will surely come when you need to talk ad nauseum about what your going through.

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film

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What Darrel said - I've used Facebook similarly, after notifying by phone or in person my closest friends and family of matters of major personal import, I then wanted to get the word out to more distant family members and friends/acquaintances. Is it a bit gauche? Mayhap, but it's more efficient and comprehensive than the church telephone prayer chain of olden days, and more reliable than the workplace gossip mill. In that sense, I'm all for it. And it was nice to receive brief words of support and solidarity in response to my postings, as well as a handful of longer personal messages from a few folks.

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa


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This isn't a perfect comparison, obviously, but those of you who are Facebook friends with me and/or Joanna know that we post a lot of photos and stories about our daughter Rory. In a perfect world, we wouldn't need to. We'd just run into friends from all corners of our personal lives on a daily basis. Family members would drop by unannounced or join us for Sunday lunch. But that doesn't happen. We live on a little farm hundreds of miles from our nearest relatives. And yet we both feel that millennia-old urge to share this experience of later-in-life and unexpected parenthood with a community who love (or at least know) us. Rory broke her arm a few days ago and is now sporting a hot pink cast. We both immediately pulled out our phones and cameras and uploaded photos. Hearing similar stories from friends who'd experienced similar episodes with their children was encouraging, but I think the driving impulse for both of us is something more primal, in a sense: we want to write the story of our lives in a way that expresses our experience of it. And we want to connect with others through that story--even if virtually. It's not ideal but it's a pretty great substitute.

A few days ago I followed a link on Facebook to the Caring Bridge site of an old high school friend I haven't spoken to in 20 years. His wife, who I've never met, died last week at 37 from cervical cancer, leaving behind my friend and their 2- and 5-year-old sons. As I looked through photos of their family and read the journal of the last few months of her life, I was completely wrecked by memories of him. I prayed for him, cried for him and the kids, and did it all anonymously, alone in my office at work. Actually, the same thing happened when I first read Darrel's post about his wife's battle with cancer. I'm an emotional guy but not maudlin. The older I get, the less I understand prayer, but I do believe that regardless of its transcendent, God-breathed effects, it's psychologically important for the pray-er. Like sharing grief, it allows us to practice empathy and compassion.

So, to your final series of questions, Christian, I'd say all of the above.

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Five years ago, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, it shook me to the core. Was I going to die? I was 51. My husband and I told our kids, my siblings, very close friends, church friends. I really did not want anyone else to know about it until I was settled with it. By that I mean knowing where I stood emotionally and with my faith.

Pre-Facebook, I did have a public vehicle for broadcasting news. My weekly column, which at that point had run in the paper for 14 years. Lots of people in this community know me. They come from all different experiences. I wanted prayer, yes, but not "Oh my God she's going to die" prayer. I didn't want to run into people and have them be like, "Oh my God! I feel so bad for you!" You see, I had to get oriented with God. Would I get through this?

After more tests and consults with doctors and much prayer, I decided to have a mastectomy, followed by reconstructive surgery. Then I had to sit with that decision for a few weeks, get used to the idea - if such a thing is possible! Two months to the day after the diagnosis, on the day of my surgery, my column appeared, telling the world what I was undergoing that day. By the time the column appeared, I knew everything was going to be all right, that I would go through the surgery and chemotherapy and would be fine. This was reflected in my column. It must have been reflected in my face, too, because people would say to me, "You're going to be all right." It emanated from me and came back to me, energizing my faith even more.

The only exception was a call from my brother-in-law. An alcoholic, he cried about how chemo killed his mother and how it would kill me too. I handed the phone to my husband and the next day got caller ID for my phone.

How did people respond to my public announcement? They sent cards - beautiful, thoughtful cards, full of love, faith and goodwill. I have them still. So this is my recommendation to you. Go pick out a card and write them a heartfelt note, something they can hold and look at again.

Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

--T.S. Eliot--
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