Having Cancer in a Digital Age

Not many years ago, I had a dim view of the Internet’s ability to create cultures of anything productive. Living and working with others constantly connected to—and distracted by—digital tools left me skeptical that any new relational depth was being plumbed through our wired lives.  I didn’t even have a cell phone until last year and was quick to judge others who ignored their children to carry on conversations in public on their phones. 

Then I got sick.  Really sick.  In a matter of months, I went from being a healthy forty-one-year-old religion professor, wife, and mother to a virtual invalid with a broken back, a stage IV cancer diagnosis, and a grim prognosis for the future.

To keep family and friends updated during the early days following the diagnosis, my brother created a Caring Bridge site for me, a website dedicated to connecting people with serious illnesses with those who care about them.  News of my diagnosis spread quickly; just as quickly loved ones, friends, and eventually even strangers signed up to receive my Caring Bridge updates.  From my narration of what stage IV cancer had done to my body to sharing the grief of having to resign from my very full and wonderful life, each of my posts was met with dozens of responses on the Caring Bridge site, as well as emails, cards, packages, visits and calls from people from all corners of my life.  It was startling to realize that through our connectedness via Caring Bridge I was being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses greater than any I could have previously imagined.

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The Still More of Alice

This summer my aunt sent me a copy of Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, a novel about a 50-year-old Harvard professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Scanning the back cover my eyes rested on the phrases “searing spotlight” and “dread disease,” tempting me to set the book on the bookshelf unread.  My own dread disease of stage IV cancer already dominates much of the landscape in my life—why devote precious summer hours to another tale of grief?  Breezy novels about beaches and sunsets seemed a more attractive option. 

But the book was a gift, so I decided to give it a few pages.  It didn’t take long to be drawn in to Genova’s chronicling of the cracks in Alice’s wonderful life.  A thriving professional woman at the height of her career, Alice’s life was rich with things we in academia covet: smart students, speaking engagements in lovely locales, always-engaging campus environment.  Amidst the loveliness of her life, the forgetting begins slowly, almost undetectably, building to a silent roar that only Alice can hear.  She initially hides her diagnosis from everyone in her life, hoping that if she doesn’t say the words “early onset Alzheimer’s” out loud she can prevent the disease from taking control.  But take control it does, and the rest of this first-person narrative walks the reader down the treacherous path that Alice must take as her life becomes increasingly dictated by the disease.    

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