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'Cancer is not something you 'like' on Facebook'

Stock photo of a cancer patient: Should people with cancer make their illness public on social media sites?


Social media users, what do you do when your life takes a drastic turn? Do you share your private, life-changing moments on Facebook? Or do you maintain your online persona as though nothing's happened?

Suleika Jaouad faced this predicament when she began treatment for cancer. In an essay for The New York Times, Ms. Jaouad says that, when she was first diagnosed with leukemia, the notion of sharing the news with her 1,500 so-called "friends" on Facebook "felt way too public and maybe even trivializing."

"After all, cancer is not something you 'like' on Facebook," she wrote, noting that her first instinct was to deactivate her account so as not to be reminded of her pre-cancer life.

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Yet not updating her profile felt "inauthentic, even dishonest." As she began chemotherapy, the images she had posted of her healthy, 22-year-old self on Facebook bore no resemblance to her new reality. It was, she says, as though her Facebook profile belonged to a stranger.

People have long struggled with questions about how, whether and to whom they ought to reveal their illnesses. But as Ms. Jaouad points out, social media have added another dimension to the quandary. Sharing information on Facebook and Twitter is instant, it doesn't always allow you to be selective about whom to tell, and it can feel impersonal.

Eventually, however, Ms. Jaouad says she found herself missing her Facebook friends and slowly began revealing details of what she was going through.

"For several months now, I've been posting updates – about chemotherapy, baldness, nausea and the like – mixed in with the normal stream of my friends' party pictures, news updates and birthday messages," she wrote. "There's a liberation in the type of public honesty you can engage in on social media. And in some ways, venturing back into social media has been better therapy than any prescription."

To share or not to share – what would you do?

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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