Cancer In The Time Of Social Media

We expect certain things from social media — there’s an unspoken decorum, an etiquette that exists within this intangible world that dictates who we are and what we post. We scroll through our feeds comfortably knowing that most of what we see will please our sensibilities. With the exception of the occasional #feetpic or that one person who posts too many #brunchgramz, we coexist peacefully in a curated, excessively filtered but reliably pleasant virtual world.

Occasionally there’s cause to pause: an old acquaintance showing off a brand new body, a friend’s jealousy-inducing encounter with a celebrity, your mother’s misguided attempt to gain your attention with a cringe-worthy puberty #tbt. Even the infrequently shocking posts are manageable, easily scrollable with minimal long-lasting impact.

Manageable… or so I thought.

A few weeks ago I was deep amidst a mindless Instagram binge when I was arrested mid-scroll. Right there on a tiny illuminated screen, standing next to My First Boyfriend at some brick-walled Manhattan bar, is My First Best Friend. A couple other people are in the photo too, former friends who haven’t lost their familiarity despite the time and distance, but they don’t matter — not when all I can see is My First Best Friend as joyful and sincere as I always knew her to be with a plain silk scarf wrapped around her bald head. “Celebrating many special things about @myfirstbestfriend,” the caption reads.


I think I must be seeing things, that my sleep-deprived brain is imagining The Worst Case Scenario. For a fleeting moment I’m convinced she shaved her head in an admirable show of camaraderie for her patients (she was studying to be an oncology nurse the last time we spoke). My heart races as I click through to her friends’ profiles in a lame attempt to glean whatever fragments of information I can from captions and comment conversations. I’m not following any of these people on Instagram or in real life. I waffle over deactivating my Facebook account and don’t really leave the house when visiting my hometown. I haven’t talked to anyone from high school in more than five years but suddenly the self-imposed isolation feels more like suffocation than success.

I frantically followed everyone from my graduating class, people who probably hated me, friends lost to neglect, immaturity, or misunderstanding. I scanned pictures wondering how long they’ve known, trying to figure out just how far out of the loop I am. I don’t deserve to know, have done nothing to warrant a phone call or text to break the news, but I still feel unwarranted pangs of juvenile hurt like I’m the last one to know some big secret.

I don’t find much on their feeds, just glimpses into their normal lives with jobs and boyfriends and adventures I’ll never hear about. I could have just clicked through to @myfirstbestfriend’s profile from the outset but that required the courage of conviction. I’m scared to find the truth and what it means for her, for me, and for this world where we learn life-altering news through an Amaro filter.

My thumb hovers over her username.

She’s still beautiful. Her photos and her pixelated life are simple in a way that reminds me of why I loved her so dearly. I study a picture of her younger sister who is unassumingly elegant and composed, so different from the energetic 8-year-old I remember. There are more pictures of My First Best Friend with her scarf-clad head. Celebratory champagne toasts. Portraits of hospital visitors. A Starbucks cup with “Terrific Lady” scrolled across it that causes me to sob.

It’s real. The cancer is real and has been for many months. It’s probably ravaged her body and her life but she’s still all smiles. I tap on a picture of My First Boyfriend sitting next to a hospital contraption laden with tubes and wires. He also had cancer when we were 19, when we were supposed to be figuring out college and life and how to be real people. (I found out via Facebook.) The machine is monitoring her vitals or pumping radioactive chemicals into her veins, I’m not really sure which, but he’s sitting there unaffected, casually smiling for her camera. Smiling for her. The caption “Sunday Funday” is devastating.

I contemplate contacting her. Her phone number is long gone but I still have her email address. I want to ask her about it, know what brand of cancer is slowly stealing her soul, apologize for not knowing, for not supporting her or praying for her or whatever else it is you do when there’s nothing to be done, for living my average life with my average health while she suffered through rounds of chemo and needles and heartbreak. It feels wrong though, like contacting her now — some 22 weeks after her first #cancergram — is just insulting and selfish. She doesn’t need my guilt, she needs a cure.

Instead, I like her photos — not the ones of her friends who shaved their heads in her honor, or the flowers in her hospital room, not even the picture of ‘good news’ test results written in a medical language I don’t understand, but the ones of her Christmas tree, a hip New York coffee shop, a particularly poignant card with Tom Hank’s picture on it that says “T. Hanks.” I want the little floating hearts to find her in that big city, to tell her that, for whatever it’s worth, there are people in this world (me) who are not as strong or brave or kind as her, but they are (I am) thinking about her. That though I don’t want to invade a life I lost touch with some time ago, I hope she never feels alone. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

featured image – Kelly Sikkema

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