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The Facebook-cancer connection

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Sure there are downsides to always being plugged in, but our hyper-connectivity has benefits too— like childhood friends finding each other on Facebook, especially in times of serious illness when they most need each other’s support and friendship.

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Dr Mom badgeLately, I’ve been hearing conversations and reading various musings about how over-connected we have become; how our inability to unplug ourselves from our phones is generating tremendous social and cultural deficit; how our kids are losing the ability to communicate effectively and without emoticons.

I have witnessed it – the lady on line at the bagel store who refuses to take her phone away from her ear while the cashier takes her order. There are the teenagers I see who have earbuds in their ears and are texting as they are simultaneously crossing the street without looking. There’s the mom in the grocery store whose kid is knocking over display shelves while she searches her purse to find out who’s making her cell vibrate and sing the “It’s Raining Men” ringtone.

(Right about now, I’m wondering how I’m going to tie this initial train of thought to my topic for the week, which is colorectal cancer.) 

I think everyone realizes how dependent we are on our smartphones. And I know that as a culture and a generation, we understand how essential they have become and how convenient they have made our lives. I mean, think about it. Before cell phones and Google, in order to find information on a business, you’d have to go to the yellow pages. To research information about the new medication your doctor prescribed, you had to go to the library. To pay your bills, you had to write checks. To shop, you had to go to the store. To take pictures, you needed a camera, and film, and you weren’t able to edit the negatives. In fact, you didn’t know if the $10 you were spending on that roll of film was just a bunch of overexposed snaps that your kid took while running around the house playing photographer. In order to share your photos with your family in the southwest, you had to go to the photo shop, make copies, and mail them a set by going to the post office to buy stamps.

(Still trying to find a segue to colorectal cancer.)

To get the news or the movie schedule, you needed a newspaper or a radio. To listen to your favorite playlist, you had to have two tape-recorders and an entire afternoon. If you wanted to talk to your mom, you’d have to call her house. If she wasn’t home, you’d have to leave her a message, wait til she got home, heard the message and called you back. Gone are the days of delayed gratification. If I don’t answer a text within 30 seconds, my husband has the police dogs out searching for my body.

The convenience of current technology is absolutely understood and I believe, often-underappreciated. Yes, I agree we sometimes need to unplug and disconnect. But the past few weeks I have been incredibly grateful for one modern convenience in particular – Facebook.

(Not sure this is going to end up the way I thought.)

I have remained in touch loosely with many, many friends from childhood, high school, college, medical school, residency and previous jobs. Some more than others, but in a way, all of my past lives are interestingly linked on my news feed. Generations, interests and backgrounds cross paths on one infinite and continuous news reel which is the scrapbook of many lives who were and are still so important to me.

I feel fortunate that I can follow along with their successes and happy life moments. I enjoy the funny jokes they post, seeing the smiling faces painting Easter eggs, reading the play-by-play as expectant mom goes through labor and then seeing the big Facebook debut photo. I love the inspirational quotes and informational articles they post. I love seeing relationship statuses go from “in a relationship” to “engaged” and then seeing the obligatory ring-shot.

Oftentimes, I receive personal messages through Facebook that begin like this, “Hi Lex. I know it’s been a long time since we’ve spoken. I love seeing the photos of your kids. I hope you don’t mind, but I have a medical question to ask.” In the past few weeks, I’ve dished out some info on kiddie vitamins, allergic reactions, rashes, shin splints, rotator cuff tears, learning disabilities and even sexually transmitted diseases like HPV. Many times I get messages thanking me for posting reliable, relevant health-related information.

But one message last week rekindled an old but treasured friendship under the worst imaginable circumstances. As I read, my heart sank to the ground and I was so torn between wanting to drive immediately down to New Jersey and wanting to cuddle up in bed with my own children.

A friend I have known since third grade messaged me that she was diagnosed with Stage III rectal cancer; the same friend, who just weeks earlier posted the 22-week sonogram picture announcing “We’re Having a Girl!” That’s right – 25 weeks pregnant with cancer. She had called me last year when my mom passed away, but it had been about five years since we saw each other in person. In fact, the last time we were together was when she brought her 1 year-old daughter to my daughter’s 1st birthday.

Though time and distance had come between us, that same old love and respect I had for her and her family resurfaced and I immediately wanted to take care of her. My inclination as a physician is always just to fix it. Figure out the solution and get her to the right people. I spoke to her on the phone and rambled off possible scenarios. She didn’t have a lot of good information for me to work with. It sounded like her doctors didn’t offer her a very good understanding of her condition or her prognosis. She was able to get an appointment at Sloan Kettering, but not until the following week. Her voice trembled with fear of the unknown. There was nothing I could do in reality. I gave her my best guess at what would be next. I gave her some advice on some questions to ask and told her that her doctors could call me if she needed someone to translate the difficult language of staging cancer.

Then, the doctor in me faded away. I spoke to her as a woman, as a mother. I put myself in her shoes and told her what I would do if I were in her situation. I advised her to stay as calm as she could because the baby could most certainly feel her every quiver of fear. Although she sought advice, I think, I hope deep down she found some comfort in just having another woman, another friend, another mother validate her fear. I reminded her that, regardless of the stage, the treatment, the outcome, she is now fighting for two. I believed in my heart, based on what she told me that she would not have to choose between her life and her baby’s life. Modern medicine has performed millions of miracles and I told her that she and her baby would likely be just another one of those miracles. I think that brought her a tiny sliver of peace to an otherwise chaotic situation.

Her specialists agreed. Her treatment is under way. Once she delivers, the doctors can attack the cancer with the fire of a thousand armies. This baby is absolutely capable of having a perfectly healthy life and so is her mother. The baby’s name will be Natalie which means “birthday.” And what a birthday she will have, coming in to this world under a brilliant firework celebration of unexpected circumstances. She will forever be a symbol of her mother’s strength, will and unconditional love.

Since treatment started, a Facebook support page has been started so my friend can share updates on Natalie’s and her progress. She can also post thank-yous and photos of all the food her other friends and fans have been sending to her in support. Every day, new messages of love and positivity show up on that feed and again I am thankful for Facebook. Not only has it allowed me to reunite with a life-long friend and her family, but it has created a network of scores of compassionate friends who are cheering her on and making her laugh and keeping her spirits high.

That couldn’t happen in the days before smartphones and Facebook. In those days, we might not have even known and she might be fighting this very hard fight feeling a lot more alone.

(Well, that certainly didn’t turn out like I envisioned. But next week, we discuss colorectal cancer. Promise).

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Hugelmeyer Alexis
Alexis Hugelmeyer, D.O.
is the wife of Michael, mother of Isabella, 5, and Lance, 3, and a family physician whose passion is hands-on manipulation for treatment and healing of any and every type of medical problem. She is the director of community outreach education at Peconic Bay Medical Center and also a private practitioner in Riverhead, where she has founded The Suah Center for Natural Healthcare. A graduate of Villanova University and New York College of Osteopathic Medicine, she lives in Baiting Hollow.

Look for Dr. Mom every Saturday on Riverheadlocal.com

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