The best thing you can do: Facebook, memes and cancer

I don’t know why this is, but if my Facebook feed is anything to go by, there are certain random times a year when the whole world gets really anxious about cancer.

I’ve already written about the shitty breast cancer “awareness” memes that show up, and my opinion on those hasn’t changed. “My bra strap is cream! Look at me, doing good things for cancer and also calling attention to my underwear at the same time!” That doesn’t make you a humanitarian, it makes you gross. Because you’re not doing anything to combat cancer, or even raising awareness about it; you’re doing it to draw attention to YOURSELF.

The latest thing is posting one of those awful text-picture memes that have become endemic to facebook (because people don’t know this is what tumblr is for). It looks something like this:

Some of you will say “What a sweet gesture! What kind of heartless monster do you have to be to have a problem with this?”

Well, I’m the kind of heartless monster who’s had cancer. I’m the kind of heartless monster whose family has been wracked with it. And I’m the kind of heartless monster who really despises empty gestures, which is all this stuff is.

Let me break it down: People with cancer, or people in remission from cancer, or people dealing with the loss of loved one from cancer, or WHATEVER, do not give a flying fuck how many “likes” a meaningless picture like this gets. They don’t care who posts it, or who makes it their profile picture for an hour. It doesn’t mean anything, because it’s not about THEM. It’s about YOU. It’s you saying “I know someone who has cancer, and I’M a wonderful person for posting this.” When, if anything, it should be “My Aunt is really brave and I tell her every day how much I love her while she’s fighting to get well.”

Would you like to know something that you can do for someone with cancer/who’s in remission/who’s lost someone and is grieving?

Call them.

When something horrible happens–like a cancer diagnosis–the majority of people in your life will not be there for you. This is one of life’s most painful lessons. They may give it lip service, at least at first, but when shit gets really real you will be astonished at how fast they disappear. There’s no point being bitter or upset about it. Most people don’t know HOW to be there for someone during one of the most trying times in their lives, and rather that attempt it, they bail. That’s okay. You don’t need those people anyway. Because the ones that remain–and their identities will probably surprise you–are the ones worth holding on to.

At some point in your life, someone you love will have cancer. That’s just statistics. And instead of posting dumb memes and talking in limp platitudes about how “brave” they are, call them. Talk to them about what’s going on with their health, or if they don’t want to talk about it yet, about baseball or celebrity gossip. Let them tell you their fears without you trying to shut them up; they’re confronting their mortality so even if it makes YOU uncomfortable, let THEM talk about how they’re scared. Go visit them in the hospital if they’re in one, and don’t give me any of that “I don’t like hospitals” whiny garbage. You know who else doesn’t like hospitals? People who are in them! Swallow your awkwardness or your fear and go already. And take flowers.

Be a good friend. Be a good human being. That’s it. It’ll be hard sometimes–I am still realising all the ways that me having cancer affected my family and friends–but you have to do it. Because that’s how life is, and that’s how being a good person is, too.

And if you’re really, really hellbent on spreading the word about cancer on social media, please make it something that counts. Post a link to a donation page for the American Cancer Society and donate yourself. Remind your friends to self-examine. Personally I talk about pap smears ALL THE DAMN TIME, because it amazes me how many of my friends have never had one. Fundraise. Anything you like, as long as it actually accomplishes something.

But remember, it starts in our own lives. Reach out to the people you love and care for. It’s the most meaningful thing that you can do. And leave the empty words at home.

8 thoughts on “The best thing you can do: Facebook, memes and cancer

  1. Last year, I was a victim of both bad luck and an arrogant-piece-of-shit doctor. I almost died, went in and out of the hospital for months and even now I’m still fighting with the consequences of all that.

    In all that time, all of my “closest” friends, dissappear. They thought I needed “space”, “time” and a lot of other bullshit that made me feel like the most awful human beign on the face of the Universe. But, some of my friends showed up. The ones I didn’t even noticed before. And they visited me at the hospital and called almost every day and laughed with and at me. (wich I consider the highest honor ever, a friend won’t always laugh with you but always must laugh at you, 😛 )

    And those friends weren’t the ones putting “likes” on Facebook the few times I could write something there or sent me a “;)” back when I tweetted something. No, they were with me, by the side of my bed, calling me, emailing me, worried if I needed something.

    I always hated Facebook in the way that brings out the “it’s all about me-me-me-me” on everyone.

    So, I fully understand your point of view, Alle.

    If you want to show that you care for someone -or something- DO something about it. Don’t post it on Facebook.

    1. First of all, boo, I am sorry that you had to go through something so awful. That absolutely sucks. But I’m glad you’re okay now (or at least MORE okay, I know things like that never really leave us).

      Second of all, yeah. You hit the nail on the head. When people say “I thought you needed space” what they mean is “I am afraid that tragedy is contagious.” It’s always incredibly disappointing and it really hurts in the short-term. But in the long term, you see who cares enough about YOU to be there, really be there, when things aren’t just happy and fine. Those are the people who matter. And they are almost always not the people you expect.

      When my brother went crazy–like actually, legitimately crazy–one of my main sources of support was someone who I haven’t been close with since high school. He stepped the fuck UP and was absolutely there for me. It was awesome and surprising and very much needed. I’ll never be able to thank him enough.

  2. THANK YOU ALLE. I completely agree with you on this, things like that don’t matter. You’re not fighting cancer by reposting a picture. You fight cancer by being there for someone and being brave with them no matter WHAT happens. My grandma has recently being diagnosed and it’s so awful that I can’t even comprehend how it must be to be told that you, yourself have it. I wrote a post about cancer recently too, and it’s such a difficult subject to tackle. I cried when I wrote it. But it’s good to talk about these things, I think.

  3. As someone who’s Dad has cancer, I could not agree with you more.

    In fact I think those memes are detrimental to real, loving support and care, because anyone who posts one can feel as though they’ve done their bit. And they fucking haven’t. It’s like a band aid for the guilt of not being a good friend.

    Thank you for writing this.

  4. The memes are idiotic, but I think Facebook can be really useful sometimes for the cancer patient. A friend of mine who was diagnosed two years ago (and is doing AWESOME right now a year after a bone marrow transplant) couldn’t have visitors for a long stretch, and she was able to reach out and be reached via FB, even in isolation. But that was all about HER. She was also able to “meet” other people going through her type of treatment online, and I know that helped her, as none of her friends knew what that was like. I was really glad that she had that support, too.

    No two patients need the same thing. And no two people suffering a loved one’s cancer need the same thing. When my dad was dying, I welcomed the empty words offered by my friends (in person and by phone) because they *were* trying. They weren’t posting a meme, but platitudes are a refuge in a society that has not taught us how to deal with sorrow and sickness and death. If you wrote off anyone who offered them, you’d be in a tiny circle, if not alone.

  5. MK, I’m really only talking about memes here, not the entirety of social media. I never said that Facebook wasn’t useful for cancer patients. Even though I wasn’t confined to a hospital during my treatment, it was vital for me to be able to talk with my friends in Australia (and other places) that I wouldn’t be able to communicate easily with otherwise. In fact, I LOVE social media for that exact reason: it lets people who otherwise would be too far away to be a major part of my life BE major parts of my life.

    Now. If, when your dad was dying–which is horrible, and I’m sorry you had to go through that–rather than calling you, the people in your life started posting a “post this if someone you know has died” meme on the internet, you’d probably be really annoyed. It would make you feel like your very personal struggles were being trivialised. You’d probably think “Why the fuck are they POSTING this instead of TALKING TO ME?” And that is my problem. These “repost if you X” things make people THINK they are being there and supporting the people in their lives, when in reality it’s doing no such thing. I have never felt comforted by how many “likes” a random picture has gotten. It’s clear that you’re also acquainted with tragedy, so I know you understand that.

  6. I run the charity Post Pals, we support seriously ill children and their siblings by asking people to log onto our site and send a card, letter or little gift to cheer the child up. Post Pals is now 9 years old but most people haven’t heard of us. I wish our message would spread, sure you can post where you leave your handbag, the colour of your bra or ‘post this message to show your support’ or people could send a message to a child with cancer or other illnesses and really be supporting them however only the first type of messages seem to go around!

  7. I cant believe I am only just reading this now! I could not agree more! This is so well written and true!
    I’m not sure if you have heard of the site which is a private site for people affected by cancer to communicate, (available to anyone, anywhere in the world) It is a professionally moderated site which also has online support groups,
    I think that it is much better for people to communicate via this sort of website than social media which is in no way private and re-posting a meme or a secret status about the colour of your underwear doesnt help anyone battling cancer.
    Thank you Alle


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