Navigating cancer in virtual world

March 24, 2011

I grew up in a village where everyone knew everyone else.  Most people who lived there were born and bred there, as were their parents and their grandparents etc. While some people commuted to work elsewhere, many didn’t so for the most part the village = the social network. My life isn’t like that. One thing is that I left the village when I was 18 and haven’t lived there full-time since, but between the ages of 18 and 26 I spent 4 years in Aberdeen, 2 years in London and 2 years back in Aberdeen and for the last 20 years I have lived in the greater Copenhagen area. For the last 20 years I’ve also been working in an international environment where many of the people I have met have a much more nomadic lifestyle than me. This means that my social network is spread over the whole globe facilitated by tools such as this blog, facebook, twitter, linkedin, skype and let’s not forget good old email.

I consider myself quite adept at using these different tools, both in my personal and professional life, but when I got my cancer diagnosis I quickly realised that there are no social rules for how you navigate cancer in the virtual world. In the village of my youth, you would just have had to tell a couple of key people (what we now call network hubs!) and before you knew it the whole village would have known that you were ill. I quickly realised I had no idea how to replicate this effect using social media.

I knew that I had to get the word out there – but you can hardly write “has cancer” has your status update! So I ended up discussing the problem with a couple of my good friends who are talented communicators and they helped me figure out a strategy. I had already recently launched this blog, so we reckoned that was a good vehicle to get the message out. I drafted the announcement message and they edited until we were all happy and then I linked it to a facebook status update with a warning message that the blog post was not for the feint hearted.

In retrospect I think our communication strategy has worked out well. The blog has a good way of keeping everyone updated, but has also been therapeutic for me. However at times I have been worried about the effect my openness would have on my professional prospects.

I work in an area where the lines between colleagues/partners/clients/friends are blurred. There aren’t that many of us working in the area and we all tend to know each other. Because we work internationally we often stay away from home in hotels where you develop closer relationships than colleagues that go home to their own “lives” every evening. By choosing to be open about my illness through the blog many of my professional network have also followed my progress and I have been very touched by the warmth and support they have shown. However, as the time for me to start working again approached, I started to worry that, having let my professional facade slip so thoroughly and completely in public, I would forever be seen as the baldy, cancer patient rather than as the professionally competent consultant. Not only that, but that people may see me as a bit of a risky prospect for longer term projects.

 Luckily my worries have proven unfounded. I’m not sure that it will ever be considered appropriate to write “successfully survived cancer” on your CV as it has become acceptable to do with things like marathons, but I suspect that there is some recognition that it is in some way “character building”! I honestly don’t feel that anyone treats me differently now in a professional context because they have witnessed my very open and honest revelations – at least I hope so!

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One Response to “Navigating cancer in virtual world”

  1. Colin Says:

    I know what you mean, Kirsten. I was in the same situation when I was diagnosed with my first cancer in 2007, and I decided I needed to get the word out.
    As a self-employed person, my business contacts needed to know the situation, and so I figured I might as well tell the world while I was at it and keep them in the loop – hence my blog and regular email newsletter.
    The response was phenomenal. People I’d known for years came out of the woodwork to tell me of their cancer experiences, stuff I had had no idea about, and the wide ranging support was a huge boost for me and my wife. My openness seemed to allow people to share and when my news improved, the response was great.
    Telling them about my second diagnosis was a no-brainer, though it was harder as I knew it would shock everyone, but again, the support was incredible and once again, being able to boost so many people with the good news at the end of treatment (in full remission, hooray!) really gave me a great lift and I know brightened a lot of people’s days.
    I’ve made contact with lots of wonderful people, and I’ve been able to support some of them through their diagnoses when they happened – people know they can approach me and I’ll understand, which I think is so important at that scary initial point in getting to grips with the diagnosis.
    And it has not damaged my business either – when I was able to come back to work the response from businesses I’d worked for in the past has been brilliant, with contacts pleased to hear of my recovery and keen to re-engage with me to the extent that I’m as busy as I would want to be again.
    I think what we (you and I and others like us who have been open about our diagnosis) have done has been to lift the veil on cancer for those who may not have been sure about it (is it okay to mention it, will it upset you sort of scenarios) and who may have been frightened of it for themselves. Of course it is still a scary prospect, but knowing (from blogs like yours and mine) that many people come through it can make such a difference on many levels.
    As for “double cancer survivor” on my CV … I’ve not exactly done that, but I’ve not shied away fro mit either and my fund-raising efforts for Cancer Research UK do often bring the subject up. As I talk quite naturally and comfortably about the subject, I know others have found this refreshing.
    Oh, and long live the virtual village, I’m so glad to be part of it.

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