For and about Cancer Survivors in Second Life, and for anyone who has been touched by cancer

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Holding on to your dreams

This weekend I chaired a panel discussion at the Dreams Community Fair about the value of support in Second Life for people with cancer in real life. With me were Chel Norfolk, Flash Alcott and Ishtar Roux, three cancer survivors in different stages of their treatment, who shared their personal stories and talked about what support means to them. And we were supported by several members of our cancer survivors group who were in the audience.

From left to right: Ish, Flash, Chel, and Poppy

All of our speakers agreed on how difficult it was to tell friends and family in RL when they were first diagnosed. And two of them have direct experience of being supported through their treatment by the friends they've made in SL, and by the support group that meets weekly in Hope Haven.

Chel, who is studying for her PhD, has only recently been diagnosed with cancer and is still discussing with her doctors what is the best course of action to take in her treatment. When she first heard the news she walked around like a zombie for the first few days. She ended up telling a friend in SL who suggested coming the cancer support meetings . At first she was very angry " ... wanting to cuss up a storm yelling at everything". But now, she says, "If it wasn’t for my friends in SL and the support group in Sl I don’t know if I would of had the strength I have to make the decisions I have made I thank everyone of them. I haven’t told many in my RL due to my need to keep my health very private. However those that do know are very supportive and I thank my lucky stars to have everyone of them."

Chel is determined to continue her schooling and to fulfil her love of travel. "I hold on to those dreams. Someone once gave me a keychain that said 'Those that dare to can make a dream come true' ... those are very strong words to me ... this is one of my strengths to look forward to my dreams."

Flash Alcott is now a regular participant in the weekly support meetings and has helped facilitate these sessions, but he describes himself as "... a very .. intensely .. private person" who found it very hard at first to share his cancer diagnosis with anyone. The first two people he told were the father of one of his daughter's schoolfriends, and the "young, hip" hospital chaplain with whom he now has coffee every couple of weeks. And the third?

"Several months ago I 'happened' upon the American Cancer Society Island. It was late one evening and I ran into something that charmed me -- little paper bags with illuminating candle inside (OK, SL versions of these things). You could dedicate a 'luminaria' to a loved one lost to cancer. Anyway, I was 'lighting' one for both my mom and dad and another avatar floated by. I told her I was touched by the simplicity and beauty of these things -- and we started talking. She was a great listener and pretty soon I was sharing - with an avatar I'd never met (and I'm not even sure if I even bothered to look at her profile) - incredibly private stuff about my health. I talked her ears off, I suspect ... but she listened. And she gave me suggestions about things to do, people to talk with. That person - you might have guessed - was Poppy ... All of which led me to a suggestion she made -- becoming involved with the ACS Second Life community. A community that has become one of my strongest sources of support."

(ahem ...)

Flash is now in the middle of his treatment and went on to say "... what I've learned from these people is that human contact is so so so terribly important. That we need to help each other."

Ishtar has now completed her cancer treatment and her prognosis is good. But she remembers that when she heard the diagnosis she felt very alone, and then realized that she had to be the one to tell the people she loved. She attributes getting through it in a large part to her mother, her dog, and her sense of humor ... she made us all laugh with her description of how she managed to tuck away her shunt in her bra ... and how she was chased out of the nuclear medicine corridor because "our giggling was disrupting things".

During the discussion that followed, The Sojourner made the interesting point that different health support groups seem to prefer different approaches. Some, like ours, benefit from having a regular meeting schedule. Others (and she gave the example of stroke survivors) tend not to want regular support, as that can remind them of what they can't control, but do want a crisis line where they can get immediate attention. As Gentle Heron added: "Some of us need routine. Some of us need help when we need it."

Ish is now a team captain for Relay For Life of Second Life. I'll let her have the last word: "Support comes in many ways but one I missed out on was the American Cancer Society and Relay For Life. In so many ways I wish I'd had my wits about me and contacted them. It would have done me so much good to meet others with cancer, and especially survivors. I'm so delighted to be involved now and help others battling cancer."