Carola is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about health topics and current social issues.
When Julia Louis-Dreyfus revealed that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer on Twitter in 2017, I remembered how I struggled with how much I should share with my friends online about my own breast cancer journey. An article in USA Today reflected the constant question: how much info, if any, on chronic illness diagnosis and treatment should be shared in emails or on social media?
Like many people, I have gathered friends on social media who are now all over the world. Some are in far-flung (to me anyway) places like Morocco, BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, North Carolina, and Florida. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer and possible bone cancer in 2011, I had to weigh the pros and cons of sharing my diagnosis and treatment journey with family, friends, and others in my life.
Pros of Sharing Info on Chronic Illness Online
Pro: Sharing Builds a Support Network
I never realized how many people had had or were undergoing cancer treatment when I started to tell the people around me about my diagnosis. Some people came forward to give me rides to medical appointments and sat with me as I went through chemotherapy and drug therapy. They provided a listening ear when I needed it.
I had friends who had already been through the cancer journey, but I found that everyone’s experience is different. Someone would breeze through radiation with few side effects while my sensitive, pale skin fried. I would be fine on a certain drug therapy overall, while another person would struggle with heart problems. On the whole, treatment is a scary journey into the unknown. Having people in my life who have already been through treatment is comforting, even if their experience is somewhat different from my own.
Sometimes, patients develop online relationships with people who are going through similar circumstances or have had experience with the same type of chronic illness. Some medical professionals are using social media to network with experts in their field of expertise on diagnosing and treating chronic conditions.
Pro: Provides Greater Access to Resources
Supporters are a good source of information and knowledge of resources on chronic illness. Sometimes people can connect us to groups and organizations that were helpful.
Pro: Can Decrease Stigma
I have found that my journey can educate others about chronic illness and its treatments. Diseases such as cancer may be less scary and more real to others when they know some of what I was going through.
Cons to Sharing Online
Con: People May be Hurt if They Found Out on Social Media
Some people may be offended that they found out on social media that someone they care about was diagnosed with a chronic illness. They would have expected me to inform them in person or through a phone call. Friends may think that me posting my diagnosis on social media shows that I do not consider them not close enough to be informed personally. The American Cancer Society recommends that patients compile a list of people who they want to tell before they share our diagnosis with others.
On the other hand, people who are close to patients will probably find out through the rumor mill whether patients post or not. Patients may not initially share a diagnosis, but share snippets about their treatment because their circle of friends knows anyways.
Con: People Expect Constant Updates
One of the problems with sharing a diagnosis is being committed to sharing regular updates. I was expected to answer a lot of questions about my condition when I shared snippets on social media. People were checking in and wanting to know the latest. This can be overwhelming. After sitting for an hour and a half or more for chemotherapy or a long day of tests and doctors’ appointments, the last thing I felt like doing was answering questions, dealing with fixers, and correcting misconceptions.
Con: Sharing May Stir up Stigma
Some people are uncomfortable around people who have been diagnosed with chronic illnesses because they believe in myths and misconceptions. For example, some people look at a diagnosis of cancer as a death sentence or assume that the patient is incapable of continuing to perform well at work.
Con: Sharing May Bring Out the Fixers
Sometimes, a diagnosis of a chronic illness brings out a compulsion in people to try to fix the situation. When I shared my condition with some people, I got stories about how a green goop shake or herbal treatment “cured” someone’s cancer. Invasive questions may be asked such as:
“What is your diet like?”
“Do you exercise?”
“Have you tried… (whatever herbal remedy they are promoting)?
Sometimes fixers are close to patients and unavoidable, but patients do have a choice as to how much they expose themselves to fixers on social media. When patients share online, there is always a danger that fixers will come out of the woodwork. These people are often well-meaning but can be annoying.
Con: Patients May be Subjected to Inappropriate Comments or Questions
Some people will tell patients to cheer up and deluge them with “things will be OK” platitudes. They are uncomfortable and feel obliged to say something – anything, no matter how awkward or inappropriate.
Con: Sharing May Cause Repercussions
Some countries such as the U.S. have laws in place to protect people with serious illnesses from discrimination or illegal firing in the workplace. In the real world, however, people have been fired for their diagnosis on trumped-up charges. Sharing health data online may also make us vulnerable to hacks.
Questions to Ask Before Posting Online
- Are you sure of your diagnosis? Misdiagnoses happen all the time.
- Have you thought through the consequences of sharing or are you reacting emotionally on the spur of the moment?
- How will people react to the news, especially people who are close to you and those in your workplace? Will there be a stigma backlash?
- Are you prepared to answer any potentially nosey or awkward questions or tell people that you do not want to talk about your illness?
- Are you able to set boundaries such as saying no to activities, not answering queries, or keeping negative or nosy people at bay?
- Are you willing to provide updates regularly?
- Can you deal with people who are well-meaning but are ignorant and say the wrong thing?
Dealing with the diagnosis of chronic illness and going through treatment is difficult. I had to process my condition and deal with the nervousness, stress, fear, and negative physical effects of treatment. I needed to decide if sharing my health status will provide the support and acceptance I needed or created more problems for me.
If patients decide to share information about a diagnosis online, they should take baby steps and limit what is shared. I chose this course when I was going through my treatments. Limiting sharing helps patients gauge how comfortable they are in posting their journey with chronic illness and assess whether the reactions online are positive, supportive, or detrimental.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus' cancer disclosure shouldn't be a model for everyone. Consider this first, USA Today, Steven Petrow
Telling Others About Your Cancer, American Cancer Society
'Coming out' with cancer, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Diane Mapes
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2017 Carola Finch