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Facebook Cancer
by Anna Prushinskaya

Our friend Carrie passed away last April. She had brain cancer, a kind that spirals quickly when it recurs. It’s been almost six months since her death. That day we were in the hospital waiting for it to happen. When it happened, the nurses said that it did and offered cookies and coffee. They were sorry that that was all that all they had for us.

She was a camp counselor for a generation of kids in Michigan and beyond and the heart of many communities. One of her philosophies of life mentioned at her memorial service: Be Brave. And if you’re going to talk about someone, at least be funny about it.

People continue to talk to her through her Facebook page. They tag her when they miss her. One close friend the other day talked about the end of the baseball season. The boys didn’t watch the game together like they did at the start of the season, when she was still watching with them.

Today everyone is posting. A friend discovered that her daughter has a tumor. The surgery has started. Facebook, the place where a storm of prayers and positive energy brews.

Another acquaintance announced a tumor on Facebook. He documents his treatment in his updates. He explains in one of them that the updates are how he copes. If you don’t like it, hide him. He raises money. He posts photos of the stitches in his skull.

A friend grieves on Facebook. Her boyfriend drifted from tumor to hospice within just months. Her updates are the public imprint of something that mostly goes hidden, a public imprint of grief.

 

In The Emperor of All Maladies, the biography of cancer and an account of an oncologist’s professional coming of age, Siddhartha Mukherjee describes cancer as, in some ways, our mutant best self. The cell optimized to multiply and live forever. Maybe that’s why cancer is also so often described as a lonely experience, that is, an extraordinary enemy perfectly suited to a one-on-one match.

These next facts are related. I talk about Facebook because part of my professional life is about social media. I tend to hear from the skeptics, those who believe that in the end, social media divides us, either from each other, or from our selves, or the present moment.

I collect these disparate cancer-caused tragedies as evidence for the opposite potential. In my professional life I often argue that the tools can be used thoughtfully toward meaningful ends (“thoughtfully” includes thinking about privacy concerns and people as product). But this essay is not a defense.

Instead, I am thinking about the moment when I see the comments and likes and photos documenting cancer, and I think (although I am agnostic about prayers and energy) that I can feel their weight. I scour Carrie’s photos, an imprint of her life, her “liking” Bruce Springsteen as a suggested reason for me to do the same.

 

Does one need to be open to the connective potential to experience it? I am writing this as I sit in my house with a dog in my lap. It is an unseasonably warm fall day. The dog is still a puppy. She likes to chase leaves. Sun spots on the keys and coffee cup. Very small snoring. My phone vibrates with an update from the hospital. The parents are grateful for the Facebook love. They ask us to keep it all coming.

 

At a conference the next week, a spokesperson for Facebook pitches Ads strategies. All the people who matter to you. Where they discover what matters to you. Where they spend the most time online. Every day, everywhere. She explains that they benchmark engagement daily (as in, the average user logs in twelve times per day).

Facebook like cancer is a growth that we often confront alone, whether in our living rooms or in public when we steal a moment with the timeline. It is where we strive to show our best selves; we choose to present one thing, but not the other. In the end, maybe it survives us.

By some projections, it’ll take until 2060 for Facebook to become the realm of the dead. By then perhaps it will be the best longitudinal, cross-generational documentation of life and death, and dying and grief, and birth and life. Who will own that data? Who will archive it? Will it go in a capsule into space?

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Carrie’s friends founded Camp Tall Tree, a camp that provides a traditional summer camp experience for children with unique challenges. You can donate to the camp’s Carrie Holmes Scholarship Fund here.

Anna Prushinskaya‘s writing has appeared in Redivider and Sonora Review, and on Two Serious Ladies and The Millions, among other places. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and she is also the Midwest editor of Joyland Magazine. Find out even more about her here.

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