This month marks 10 years since Florida-based Jacki Donaldson started blogging about breast cancer. Today, the survivor talks about giving hope to women through her 10-year-old blog
In November 2004, a 34-year-old mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in Florida, USA. Worried about her two young sons and husband, unsure and terrified of the consequences, she went through all the emotions of a woman in such circumstances.
Jacki Donaldson blogs about her experience
After she began treatment, her days were spent talking about it in tears, her mental and physical pain, and her worries, in person or over the phone to her mother, relatives and friends. That’s when Jacki Donaldson’s husband suggested she blog about all this to keep her loved ones in the loop, instead of repeating everything over and over. Jacki took the advice and began www.cancerspot.org.
What was meant to keep them in the loop about her illness soon became therapeutic for her and for other women suffering from breast cancer. Her words reached out both to breast cancer patients and their relatives. Today, Jacki is cancer-free, and still writes for her blog which is viewed in 80 countries. In an email interview, Donaldson talks about how her story was cathartic for her and comforting for others.
Q. It is 10 years this month, since you began your blog after your diagnosis in 2004. Your husband encouraged you to write. Did you have apprehensions on blogging about something so personal?
Jacki: I had no reservations because I was tired of retelling my story in person and on the phone. It was wearing on me, I was weepy, and I needed to dry my tears. I welcomed my husband’s nudge to create a blog (a new word to me in 2004!), and I have never regretted publicly documenting my words. My blog allowed me to record each step of my progress one time, and friends and family members could read at their convenience. Also, I am an open book; I rarely shy away from sharing personal details when they can help others.
Q. It's not easy laying bare one’s emotions about something like this. But you’ve done that, writing even about survivor’s guilt. It must have been painful.
Jacki: Not sharing my emotions would have been harder. Freeing all of my feelings via blogging helped me process what was happening to me. It was free therapy.
Q. At what point, did you realise that your words were providing hope for many women reading the blog? Did it make you more responsible as a writer?
Jacki: I realised through the comments readers left on my posts right away that my words were inspiring others. As time passed, more and more readers reached out. Some of my favourite people are those whom I have never met. After about 18 months of blogging, editors started contacting me and inviting to write for pay. I wrote for Family Circle magazine, for example, and that generated even more followers. My blog currently gets more than 2,000 users per month. Knowing that so many people are reading does make me a responsible writer-that is why I do not write much about research or technical topics; I do not want to try to make sense of complicated topics that may influence readers in any way.
Q. You have even put up pictures of your body, scars, discolouration after a test etc. There were also pictures where you’ve said you hate your curly hair that’s grown after chemotherapy, etc. Would you say it took more courage to put up the pictures than write?
Jacki: The only photo that required courage was the one that showed my newly bald head because losing my hair was very difficult. I eventually published the picture because it was honest and real, and I believe that in order to fully portray cancer, it is necessary to show it in its raw form.
Q. What has been your husband’s and your family’s reaction to the blog over the years?
Jacki: Everyone has been a loyal reader, supporter, and encourager. Even now, 10 years post-diagnosis, my family members refer others to my blog as a resource.
Q. You’ve had polls like ‘Which is the wig?’ when you put up pictures of your natural hair after chemotherapy and the wig you wore during treatment and asked people to identify the wig. You asked readers to send pictures on ‘What breast cancer looks like’, wherein women fighting it sent pictures of their interpretation of it. How did you come up with such ideas?
Jacki: Those ideas were my attempts at showing, not just telling about, cancer. Hair loss can be a traumatic experience for many women. I wanted to minimise fear by showing just how natural wigs can look.
Q. Many people connected with you through the blog. Can you narrate some experiences which stayed with you?
Jacki: My favourite connection is to those with whom I have shared my wig. When someone asks me via my blog about hair loss and how to cope, I offer to loan my wig. It has traveled to several states, and women I have never met have worn it and then sent it back when they no longer needed it to cover their bald heads.
Q. What is the one outcome of the blog that you don’t like?
Jacki: There is nothing I do not like. My entire blogging journey has been, and continues to be, a positive and uplifting experience.
Q. In 2007, you wrote ‘Letting go’, about branching out, writing about other things besides cancer. What did you write about? Did people pull you back to the blog, which is why you still write for it?
Jacki: For a while I wrote about health, fitness, and well-being, but I ultimately come back to cancer. No one pulled me back; I just feel the need to continue sharing about a topic with which I am very familiar.
Q. What can people do to help someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer?
Jacki: They can help-not offer to help; just help. Instead of saying, “Let me know if I can do anything,” folks can say something like, “I am going to the grocery store for you; tell me what you need” or “I am coming over to watch your kids so that you can take a nap.” Cancer patients may not feel comfortable asking for help; it is much easier to accept help that just arrives. Also, I suggest not making statements about how life could be worse. It is better to say, “This is so unfair” or “You must be so scared” or something that validates feelings and does not minimise the terror of cancer. I also like sending care packages of comfy socks, candles and books.
Q. In the blog you’ve talked about your family and friends who stood by you. You've also talked about your doctors who went beyond the treatment to support you. What is your message to other doctors?
Jacki: Make a personal connection with your patients. It does not need to be long or lasting, but a small personal touch can deliver a great deal of comfort. I received a hand-written note from the surgeon who delivered me my cancer diagnosis. He wrote,
Just a brief note to let you know that I regret being the messenger of bad news, but know that you will come through this difficult time healthy & strong. I and my staff wish for you a smooth and speedy recovery. Dr. Mac
Q. From hearing ‘unfortunately cancer cells were found’ to ‘you are cancer-free’. Did hearing the latter make you feel that you could finally move on from what you endured?
Jacki: Definitely. And as time wore on, my worries faded more and more. I now know that my cancer will not return. That is not to say I will never get
cancer again, but the one I had will not return.
Q. Besides the fact that they or someone related has breast cancer, what do you think is common between the women of the 80 countries that your blog is viewed in?
Jacki: Oh, I think there are many commonalities, like risk and fear and uncertainty. What my blog statistics tell me is that no matter where a woman (or man) lives, the questions and the desire to connect with someone who has already walked in breast cancer shoes is universal.
Q. What would you advice women on how to avoid breast cancer?
Jacki: Follow screening guidelines, be aware of how your own body feels, and follow up on anything suspicious. Also, be an advocate for your own health. Fight to get the care you deserve.
Q. On a lighter note, what do you know about India and have you ever been here or plan to come?
Jacki: I have never been to India, and what I know, which is not a whole lot, comes from friends who are from India. Oh, and some of my friends from India are coming to Mumbai for Christmas.
'My personal story'
In 2000, my elder sister Aradhana Chitnis, who was working as creative director at Rediffusion DY & R, died of complications from breast cancer, three years after it was detected. I wanted to do something to ensure that she doesn’t become just another statistic. But it was after a long, painful time before I found what I could do.
In 2009, after a colleague suggested, I decided I would blog about breast cancer as a one-woman campaign. So I began www.thinkpinkforindia.blogspot.com I also came across Jacki Donaldson’s blog and was totally inspired by it. It is only in recent years that people have become aware of breast cancer and its symbol, the pink ribbon.
When I wear one through October, which is International Breast Cancer Awareness Month, initially people asked me if it was ‘for some AIDS thing’ or ‘are you supporting gay rights’. I am all for human rights, but I wear the pink ribbon in memory of my sister, and to make people aware of breast cancer.
It is a very painful subject to write on, and so there are times when I have taken a long break from my blog. But despite the torture, I will write, because I want to make a difference to someone, to make people aware, even if it’s one person. I will write for that person.
- Ashlesha Athavale