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#TeamJanet: Fighting Breast Cancer Through Facebook

Today is my mom’s birthday….HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!IMG_6371.JPG

If you are following me on just about any social media site, you may have learned this past winter my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.  After only two surgeries she has been given the all clear.  We are beyond grateful for this wonderful news.  Six months ago though our family was faced with many unknowns, taking each day and test as they came.

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a reporter from my hometown newspaper, who would be doing a feature on my mom’s experience.  Now if any of you grew up or live in a small town (mine happens to be around 3,000) then you know ending up in the newspaper will be the talk of the town.

The reporter asked me some interesting questions, specifically because I am a blogger and social media researcher.  What was interesting about my mom’s story with breast cancer was that she heavily used social media as a communication tool and community support.  So, the questions leaned toward her openness of being diagnosed, the process of choosing which procedure to go with, and so on.

You can see the full article here (Page 1) and (Page 2).  Other than my last name being mis-spelled, it was very nice depiction of the experience and my mom’s spirit.

72004_1692537043901_1510426_nOne of the questions I was asked was if I had blogged about my mom’s cancer.  While I did share a personal post about our relationship last year (here), I realized I had not specifically written about her diagnosis.  I did write the loss of my mother-in-law to cancer in a post last year (found here) and my call to readers to be vigilant in self-care and check ups.

My mom didn’t need to hear this advice.  She has always been rigid on doctors visits.  So when my aunt, her sister was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer last fall she went in early.

The detection of a lump was so small, only the zillion dollar machine could pick it up.  Even at the time of surgery you couldn’t feel it.  It was slow-growing and stage one.  Thank God.

We moved quickly, with mom at the wheel for every decision along the way.  She chose aggressive action with a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

Going back to the newspaper interview, I thought it important to share my responses as it digs into a deep revelation about the potential for social media communication tools and community building.  In this case, the tools were used, as my mom explained like therapy.  She described it as healing to be so open and even more encouraging to be flooded with such positive response.

As I share my responses, I will also add some social media research that I believe applies and the need for more studies on how social media may aid those in great need of support in times of sickness or even death.

How did you feel about Janet being so open on Facebook about having breast cancer? 

Staying positive and surrounding yourself with support are two key ingredients when going through something challenging, especially related to your health.  I believe my mom used the resources available, including Facebook to help her (and my family) through a difficult time.

When I heard my mom had breast cancer it was obviously difficult to hear, but I knew she would not wait one second without moving forward.  My mother is a case study of early detection and the importance of regular check-ups.  They caught it so very early.  My entire family feels very lucky compared to others who are battling cancer in many forms.

Many others going through various cancers use social media as a tool to communicate to family and friends, as well as build community and support.  I have seen this a lot with blogging, where patients can also use it as a forum to raise money for their medical bills.  As a blogger, my mom and I talked about staring a blog for her.

976785_10100403225709518_1429568878_oRelated Research:  In an article from Wandel (2008) in Planning for Higher Education, social media use has been observed from college students going through struggles and even experiencing bereavement (death) of family members.

Considering 22-30% of college students experience a loss of a family member or close friend during college, having social media as a tool through difficult times is extremely important for educators to be aware of.

Further, Wandel declared that digital communication tools are a means of social support and connection with others, no matter the situation one faces.  While I haven’t located research on adults using Facebook to gain strength or build community through challenging times such as cancer, if I was to apply Wandel’s research I believe it begins to tell a significant story.

Do you think your blog influenced her decision to do so? 

She considered this, but Facebook was easiest so off she went!  Because I live in Los Angeles, I was able to see the outpouring support from the local community to her posts.  It was really touching and a reminder how much my mom is loved.  One of most memorable Facebook post was her last day of school when her wonderful colleagues at Newcastle Elementary School all wore pink, showered her with gifts and decorated the busses pink.  This act alone gave her a boost in confidence going into her long surgery a few days later.  When I arrived to Newcastle before the surgery, I walked into our living room which was packed with pink love, from handmade signs from her students to cards and candles from neighbors.

I was assign the ‘facebook updater’ when mom was in surgery.  I let her community know it was me and followed each post with #TeamJanet.  Even those posts and responses gave my family in the waiting room a boost of support we needed after more and more time passed by.

Like any technology, tools like social media can be used for time wasters or for actual good.  I believe this was a case of Facebook used for good and hopefully was an example to others that they don’t have to take on battles alone.  Obviously you have to choose your own filter and appropriate level of sharing.  This is a delicate balance, so many times my mom would ask for my opinion if she was sharing too much.  If she was getting graphic (such as explaining a procedure) she would add a disclaimer, so readers knew to stop reading.

16938_598954139218_263905_nRelated Research:  In 2013, Gray, Vitak, Easton & Ellison examined social adjustment to college in the age of social media.  Findings included social media sites ability to assist college students into college, building social capital to support them emotionally.

This study documented social support through social media, sharing in experiences and gaining connections both existing and new.  Again the population was college students, but could be inferred to be a possibility for adults going through other life transitions.

Final Thoughts: The last six months have brought my family and even dear friends closer.  Even when I could not physically be home with her, we had other forms of digital communication tools to keep connected.

I continue to be blown away with the amount of support I observed my mother receive from our local Wyoming community, but also from complete strangers both online and in person.  My mother was not alone at any step in this journey.  She chose to be open on Facebook through the entire process.  Maybe some found it a version of over-sharing, others praised her for inspiring and role modeling positive behavior.

The reality is, every gets to choose what they post.  Would I rather see a vulnerable and even emotional posts from a ‘Facebook friend’ over a photo montage of what a friend ate for dinner or a rant about politics?  Yes Please!

193349_206145499398654_2205969_oI believe that is the crux of digital decision-making and using social media for social good.  If your activity online is contributing or just adding to the noise.  Are you being authentic and even more importantly giving support to others in your virtual community.

This is why #TeamJanet was so strong.  My mom is your biggest cheerleader.  On Facebook, if you are lucky enough to be her ‘friend’ she will Like nearly every (positive) post you put out.  Not just because she is checking it off like a to do list.  Her compassion spreads online, celebrating others and making friends know she believes in them.  This is why when she was in need, burdened with the reality of having breast cancer, all of her ‘likes’ came back two-fold.

The very last question I was asked in the interview, brought it back to me and my future:

With several women in your family having breast cancer, what will or have you done to stay on top of it?

Yes a number of my family members have been diagnosed.  But as for me, I’ll be following suit just like my mom did.  Routine checks, as well as a healthy lifestyle and positive attitude.

It one day I am diagnosed, I know I’ll have a strong community behind me both in-person and online.


Gray, R., Vitak, J., Easton, E. W. & Ellison, N. B.  (2013).  Examining social adjustment to college in the age of social media: Factors influencing successful transitions and persistence.  Computers & Education, 67, 193-207.

Wandel, T. L. (2008). Colleges and universities want to be your friend.  Planning for Higher Education, 35-48.


About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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