Beating Cancer, one Facebook Post at a Time

Beating Cancer, one Facebook Post at a Time June 22, 2015

Image/Matt Paolelli
Image/Matt Paolelli

Hello, my name is Matt and I’m a social media addict.

Before I even get out of bed in the morning, I grab my iPhone to turn off my alarm and check Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I even consult an app called Timehop that shows me the no doubt witty and insightful social media activity I posted on this day in previous years. As I board the train to work, my social media odyssey continues as I read the best the Internet has to offer, as curated by those I follow on Twitter. It doesn’t stop when I get to work. As a digital communications professional, managing my employer’s social media has been a part of my 9-to-5 job for the last eight years.

In my personal life, social media is a source of news, humor and inspiration, as well as a way to keep in touch with family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues around the world. I always contend that the seemingly superficial interaction on social media is better than no interaction at all. In the decade (has it really been that long?!) that I’ve been on Facebook, the contents of my newsfeed has evolved from photos of college happenings to engagement announcements and wedding photos to ultrasound images and baptisms.

My own social media posts over the past year have documented some of the biggest moments of my life to those who friend and follow me. I met my soulmate and fell in love, I got engaged, I sold my condo, I bought a house, I got married, I changed jobs. It seemed like I had completed every major milestone I could possibly attempt in 2014. My Facebook friends were “liking” everything that was happening in my life, and so was I.

Little did I know that 2015 would give me something completely different to tweet about. In January, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and life as I knew it was immediately put on hold.

Thumbs Up during Chemo/Matt Paolelli
Thumbs Up during Chemo/Matt Paolelli

That sounds dramatic, but you don’t know how true that statement can be until you find yourself visiting hospitals on a weekly basis, having surgey to remove an enlarged lymph node in your neck, receiving chemotherapy once every two weeks and trading your office cubicle for a laptop on the couch in your living room.

When I was diagnosed, I knew that I wanted to be as public as possible about my cancer fight. I was trained in and also teach journalism, so I wanted to properly document this journey and keep my family and friends aware of what I was going through. It turns out the best tool for that job was my old friend social media. My personal blog immediately became a cancer blog and Facebook and Twitter became my best platform for sharing my story. In my posts, I dubbed the enlarged lymph node “Lumpy” and a Facebook friend soon invented a hashtag for my struggle–#DownWithLumpy. I adopted this as my battle cry and people even began posting supportive selfies using that slogan.

As a devout Catholic, I couldn’t share my experience without also revealing the profound impact of my faith on how I was approaching this hurdle. Before getting cancer, I wasn’t actively hiding my Catholicism in my online persona, but I was more of an Easter-Christmas Catholic on social media. I listed my faith as Roman Catholic on Facebook, I made it known when I gave up social media for Lent a few times, I posted a selfie with my ashes, and I posted the occasional Bible passage if the mood struck me. I never really used my social media postings in any way that could be considered evangelical or even really insightful to others about my own deep faith.

Lumpy changed all of that. After I was diagnosed, I experienced the best of social media as friends, long lost family and mere acquaintances all reached out to digitally offer their love and support. My blog gained quite a following as people were genuinely concerned about me, wanting to know how I was doing and how they might help. Since my physical needs hadn’t really changed, I always just asked people to pray for me and for everyone battling cancer. I wrote openly in my posts about my own belief in the power and necessity of prayer. I wrote about attempting to unite my suffering with Jesus’ Passion and offering up my struggles for others. I admitted how difficult it sometimes was to do that. I wrote about trying to find God’s plan in the midst of a seemingly negative situation.

Around the time of my diagnosis, a website called happened to be starting a novena to St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer patients, whom I confess I had previously never heard of. I had only recently become familiar with the idea of a novena, but the timing of all this was perfect. I wrote a blog post asking anyone of faith to please join me in praying the novena. I briefly explained the concept and gave some background on good old St. Peregrine.

Soon I started getting messages from people—both Catholic and non-Catholic—saying things like, “I don’t usually pray, but I’m praying for you” or “I’ve never done this before, but I signed up for the novena!” or “My family is praying for you every night.” I saw Facebook statuses and tweets from friends encouraging other people to pray for me.

By publicly opening up about my faith, people were opening up to me about theirs and potentially even revisiting a faith they had forgotten. Witnessing my faith on display in the digital world, people were connecting to their own after they logged out. At the very least, there was certainly a surge in novenas flying up to Heaven that week.

If all goes as planned, I will thankfully be cured of this disease in mere months. But the lesson will remain: Jesus might not have been on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean we can’t put Him there ourselves—and maybe even gain him a few more followers.

Matt Paolelli is the manager of digital communications for Catholic Extension, a non-profit that funds poor mission dioceses around the country. He also teaches journalism at his alma mater Northwestern University. When he’s not fighting cancer, he’s rooting for the Chicago Cubs or playing board games with his lovely wife. You can read his blog at Rounding 30.

Image/Matt Paolelli
Image/Matt Paolelli

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