Coping with Cancer through Blogging: How can sharing your personal narrative online help?
They say a problem shared is a problem halved. If you have ever felt that weight leave your shoulders after talking through a problem with a friend, you’ll know that there is some truth to this statement.
However sometimes it is easier to discuss concerns with a complete stranger than it is with a friend or relative. This may be particularly true as one tries to come to terms and cope with a life changing event, such as being diagnosed with cancer for example. In such situations, a person may be worried about burdening or worrying their loved one and may instead prefer to share their thoughts and feelings with unknown others who have however had similar experiences.
With today’s technological innovations and developments, there are ever more ways to communicate with others and gain that sought after social support. One method is by blogging, which enables the sharing of personal thoughts, musings, or experiences about a topic of personal relevance or interest. People’s motivations for writing blogs about their cancer journey can vary but include making sense of one’s own experiences, reaching out to others for support but also sharing one’s own story in order to inspire and help others. There are some particularly poignant examples of blogs such as one by Jessica Oldwyn, who was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour in 2010. Her blog “Toom-ah? What Stinkin' Toom-ah!”
(https://jessicaoldwyn.blogspot.com/) includes personal posts about her story as well as resources and information she has found useful and things that may be of use to others.
It is not surprising that people find comfort in writing their cancer narrative. Writing about traumatic or life-changing events is an activity often used in therapy in order to help someone organise and make sense of their emotions so that they can better cope or overcome such an event. Not only that, but the psychologist James Pennebaker (https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(93)90105-4 ) also found an association between such therapeutic writing and physical health and wellbeing outcomes. In cancer survivors, studies have found that such writing can relieve stress, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, reduce pain and even enhance sleep (Merz et al., 2014: https://doi.org/10.1080/17437199.2014.882007).
Writing online opens up specific opportunities that are not available through other more traditional forms of writing, which include personal diaries and journaling. One key difference is that sharing personal narratives online can reduce feelings of isolation, while still maintaining some sense of anonymity. It enables you to reach out to others who are sharing similar experiences, exchange thoughts and ideas, thus creating an online community. Search engine algorithms embedded in online platforms can reinforce this by identifying relevant contents within blogs depending on the exact terms people are looking for.
In addition to maintaining personal blogs online, popular social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, or even Instagram can also all be used for these purposes. There also exists more specialised platforms, specific to people having been touched by cancer such as the Irish Cancer Society’s Online community (https://www.cancer.ie/community) which provides a forum to discuss specific topics of relevance. Specific websites like PatientPower (https://www.patientpower.info/contribute/your-story) provides online patient support groups where one can share their story.
While the development of online tools to support health and wellbeing allow for ever novel ways for people living with cancer to share their personal narratives, there are potential drawbacks to blogging for health that cannot be overlooked.
What if somebody shares or promotes false information? What happens if someone publicly expresses desires of self-harm online? Despite its benefits, drawbacks to sharing personal narratives online cannot be overlooked.
Technology, and online tools more specifically, do not replace human contact, which is paramount to one’s health and wellbeing. Further to this, while the act of blogging can enhance feelings of wellbeing, sharing narratives online does not replace the support provided by a mental health professional. Nonetheless it can be seen as a useful first step to seek help for those who do not yet feel ready to reach out to formal support services.
The sharing of personal stories related to health and wellbeing online also raises ethical issues relating to appropriate safeguarding. For example, who is responsible for the publication of false information and how can this be prevented? These can have significant ramifications on the health of others, as can be seen in the case of Belle Gibson, who lied about having brain cancer in order to promote and profit from the sales of her alternative diet app (https://news.sky.com/story/belle-gibson-admits-lying-about-brain-cancer-10362512) Also, what happens if someone publicly expresses desires of self-harm online ? Who is responsible for the care of this individual and what can be done to protect them?
When sharing personal stories online you are exposing yourself to others’ reactions. These may or may not be the reactions you want, or are expecting, to receive. Are you prepared to receive different types of responses? What if you don’t receive any responses at all? It is even possible that your personal narrative is not even seen by others. This can happen if the search engine algorithms, used in online platforms, do not render it sufficiently findable. In this case technology would be hampering the social connection the blogger is aiming to find.
While the veil of anonymity enabled by blogging can help someone share their personal experiences, it can also promote what is known as “trolling”. However, social media platforms are now taking this increasingly seriously and are enabling users to report, moderate and delete inappropriate messages prior to these becoming publicly available.
Three tips for sharing your story online
There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to coping with a cancer diagnosis. While some find benefit in sharing their experiences online, this is not for everyone. Choosing what to say, how to say it, to whom and where, is very much a personal decision.
If you are considering blogging for the first time but are not sure where to start, why don’t you see how others go about sharing their personal narratives online? In this way, you also get a chance to see how others respond to what is being shared and you can dip your toes in by being a part of the conversation.
Before publishing anything online, make sure to take the time to consider the potential consequences of sharing your story to ensure you are completely happy with its content.