Five hundred miles from her hometown in northern Virginia, newlywed Jeannie Choi, 30, and her husband were settling into to Massachusetts and their new careers in July 2015. Just three months later, their wedding vows – to support each other in sickness and in health – would be put to the test with another transformative moment: a breast cancer diagnosis.
New to town and feeling alone as the first member of her family to be diagnosed with cancer, Choi joined Dana-Farber’s Young Adult Program (YAP) online community to find support and advice. “My husband is there for me, but he’s my caregiver,” Choi explains. “I realized that I needed a different kind of comfort; a place where I had someone who could understand what I was experiencing.”
Open to all new, current, and recent young adult patients at Dana-Farber, the YAP online community is a place to share information, connect, and learn how to address the unique challenges young adults face. There is also a corresponding online community for caregivers of young adults, open to parents, partners, siblings, and friends.
Seeking to make sense of her new reality, Choi drafted a post on the online bulletin board introducing herself. “I talked about how I felt like I didn’t know where my life was going, how it seemed like everything was put on pause,” she recalls. “I also shared how I was worried about having a family, how I couldn’t relate to my friends anymore, and how I felt very alone.”
“I was apprehensive at first to reply, because she was talking about being newly diagnosed with breast cancer, and I was in maintenance treatment for ALL,” McCue says. “But I needed to join the conversation.”
Although in a different place in her illness, McCue related to Choi’s story. “I was in Brooklyn pursuing musical theater, and then – bam – this happens,” she says. “I went from a busy life in the city to losing my independence. It felt like my life had been put on hold.”
Another member of the YAP online community, Christina Crespi, 28, was being treated for colon cancer when she read Choi’s post. Like McCue, she immediately felt a connection.
“I was watching my friends move forward with their lives,” she says. “They were focused on things that I used to be focused on. And here I was, one of the youngest people on the gastrointestinal floor, feeling very alone.”
What started off as a post sent into cyberspace turned into a daily correspondence between the three women. From texting updates after chemotherapy and sharing progress through emails and phone calls, Choi, McCue, and Crespi became close friends.
“All three of us were in different places in our journeys, with different types of cancer, and yet we were still facing the same challenges,” Crespi says. “It was empowering to know that I wasn’t alone.”
At the 2016 Young Adult Cancer Conference, the three women finally met in person. “They have taught me so much – especially in terms of how to still enjoy life during cancer treatment,” Choi says. “It was like meeting an old friend.”
Whether typing, talking, texting, or finally meeting in person, for these three women, the YAP community provided critical support, friendship, and camaraderie to help navigate young lives interrupted.