Life Unfiltered: Why I Opened Up About My Cancer Scare on Social Media

We tend to share life’s greatest hits online — glitzy vacations, luxe dining experiences, all the wedding/dog/new baby pics. But what happens when you drop the facade?

Illustration by Kiersten Essenpreis

“I’m tired of hiding,” I say aloud to nobody. I’m alone on a travel assignment, scrolling Instagram in my room and thinking about how frustrating and disheartening it is that so few people share what’s actually going on in their lives. Every feed post has become part of an intentionally crafted grid, a curated scrapbook that makes it seem like life couldn’t be better for us all.

Of course, that’s never the truth. Hours ago, I learned that the family that runs the resort where I’m staying recently lost one of their own and is doing their best to continue business while they quietly grieve. (And here I assumed they were blowing me off when they didn’t respond to my emails as quickly as I wanted. AITA or what!)

I’ve been harboring my own secret, too: It’s exactly one month — but feels like an eternity — since my surgery, the one I only told my husband, parents, in-laws and best friend about. I feel weighed down, detached, like a phony for keeping my five-month cancer scare hidden from so many. “Nobody hangs hard times on the wall,” as that country song goes — a lyric I had made my mantra.

After much back-and-forth, I decide being honest and vulnerable outweighs potentially being judged for oversharing. I spend an hour drafting multiple iterations of my story, vigorously typing and deleting and typing and deleting — Is this detail too much? Am I not including enough? — until I’ve settled on a version that feels right. I pair nine text-heavy slides with a totally unflattering but unfiltered photo: a pre-surgery selfie showing off a hospital gown, a surgical hair cap, a face mask, dark under-eye circles and no makeup.

Even though my post would be the opposite of the shiny, glittering, everything’s-perfect facade so many of us work to project on social media, I simply … don’t care. Nobody, including me, owes the world anything, especially when it comes to health. Yet two thoughts won’t quit me: I don’t want others who go through something similar to feel confused, scared and isolated, the way I had, and I want this immense weight lifted from me so I can start to move on. My mom taught me long ago that the important things in life should never be kept secret. Yet she, I and so many others have been conditioned to keep our health-care woes, our grief, our day-to-day struggles to ourselves and suffer in silence — even at the price of feeling isolated and bereft. Frankly, that seems like a total sham in our social media-driven world.

So I take one small, scary, freeing step: I press the blue Share button.

At my annual gynecological appointment in December 2021, my Pap smear came back abnormal — I’ve had a history of what’s called atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance, or ASCUS — and I tested positive for HPV. The two combined gave my doctor pause, especially because the infection, though extremely common in today’s world, accounts for nearly all cervical cancer diagnoses. About three months later, I nervous-sweated my way through a colposcopy — an uncomfortable in-office procedure that biopsies the cervix for pre-cancerous and cancerous tissue — and on April 11th, I learned the results: My cervix contained high-grade pre-­cancerous cells (also known as cervical dysplasia). My gyno assured me that while I didn’t yet have cervical­ ­cancer — yet! Cue more nervous sweating — I would need to undergo a surgery called a LEEP that would remove at-risk tissue with an electrified wire, so I could hopefully (hopefully!?!?) avoid developing the big C.

I spent the entire spring and summer anxious, angry, lonely and terrified — ­feelings that so many of us sit with but rarely share in casual conversation or on social media. I didn’t feel supported by my doctor (who acted like this whole thing was akin to getting a haircut), didn’t know what questions to even ask about how a LEEP might affect my body, and didn’t know anyone who had been through anything similar. (Or so I thought. Pre-cancer, I found out after my surgery, is diagnosed far more often than invasive cancer.) I had strongly considered postponing the operation until after I had a child — I’d been warming up to that idea — but the plan was quashed when I learned that pregnancy can accelerate the process of cervical dysplasia becoming cancerous, and that a LEEP can sometimes lead to prenatal complications like pre-term birth and miscarriage. On top of all that, I didn’t find out until 10 days before going under that the procedure is also an early-diagnosis method. If I already had cervical cancer, I needed to know as soon as possible. Postponing became a non-option; I’d be undergoing a LEEP at the end of August whether I liked it or not.

Newly 32, I saw my life — which should have been replete with present joy and future plans — put on hold, out of my control. I spiraled into a deep depression, avoiding things I love, like get-togethers with friends and spin class at my neighborhood studio. During Zoom meetings for work, I plastered on a smile before writing and filing story after story. On the rare occasion I had to change out of my PJs and socialize, I quite literally grinned and bore it. And nobody was any wiser.

My hypocrisy felt magnified on Instagram, the social media platform I use most. While I consider myself an open book, I couldn’t bring myself to post about what I was navigating. Social media was designed to connect people and make the big world feel more close-knit and a little less lonely. Whether that’s been the case has been debated ad nauseam, but what’s clear is that people don’t often — or at least are just starting to — use their main feeds on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to open up about hard stuff. Instead, users tout life’s milestones, flaunt world travels, glorify mundane family outings, because apparently everybody’s a model and every moment needs to be professionally photographed and everything’s just so spectacular. Bragging has become commonplace, and our feeds scream, “Look at all the amazing things I’m doing that you’re not!” Plus, there’s this collective understanding that you shouldn’t share certain things. Sure, celebs pimp out their kids on Instagram, influencers post their wardrobe woes on TikTok, and boomers bitch about bad customer service on Facebook, but don’t you dare share your mental-health struggles or relationship problems! Have GI issues? Keep that shit to yourself!

Nobody wants to admit or even hint that life — especially one’s own — is lousy sometimes. God forbid your ex or frenemy is privy to your shortcomings. Or, if you’re a people-pleaser like me, you refrain from publicizing your problems because everyone has their own and you don’t want to burden anybody. “I’m fine! Never been better!” we bluff, and our followers lap up these half-truths like my dog panting at his water bowl.

The thing is, most of us want to feel seen, heard and validated, and social media is a convenient place to potentially fulfill those desires. It’s right at our fingertips, after all. Over the years, and as a result of the pandemic especially, the line between the “real world” and the digital realm has essentially vanished — this is the age of telehealth, remote work, dating apps, and TV-broadcasted couples therapy. It’s why most people today perceive the digital world as reality, according to Mary Chayko, a professor of communication and information at Rutgers University and the author of Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media and Techno-Social Life. “The digital world is different from physical space, of course — it lacks the full range of sensory experiences like touch and smell that are evident when people are face-to-face — but the online world and the offline world are fully enmeshed,” she says. “Just as funds in a digital bank account are real and emotions generated in making a friend online are real emotions — we’d be really hurt if they ‘ghosted’ us — the impact of all digital activity is real for those who engage in it.”

It’s part of the reason why Bonnie Kelly, a musical-theater performer and spin instructor at Revel Ride in Grad Hospital, began documenting her grief journey on Facebook and Instagram after her mom died last July. “As a millennial wellness professional, I felt like I would be a total fraud if I just ignored the fact that my world had been turned upside down and continued to post only about fitness classes, cocktails or my next show,” she says. “Wouldn’t that be just sweeping the fact that I am now a parentless 33-year-old, managing an estate and grieving the sudden loss of my best friend, under the rug? What kind of help is it to anyone to just pretend nothing happened? Grief continues to affect me every minute of every day — and I wanted my profile to be a true picture of who I am.”

In keeping my situation mostly to myself both on- and off-line, I knew I wasn’t living truthfully — and I realized why I felt so alone. “A curated scrapbook means people don’t fully know you and therefore can’t fully be there for you,” says Emmalee Bierly, a licensed marriage and family therapist, co-founder and co-owner of the West Chester- and Rittenhouse-based Therapy Group, and co-host of the ShrinkChicks podcast. “People only see and know parts of your life — they might know where you went to dinner last Tuesday or how cute your dog is and assume you’re doing amazing, but inside, you might be lonely or scared or depressed. Posting only the good times stops us from receiving deeper, non-fleeting community care and love for the things we don’t outwardly show but need support for.” How exhausting it is to exist in a constant state of Jekyll and Hyde — and how freeing it could be to come clean.

Our social identities really aren’t that different from the off-screen lives we live. I have more than a thousand “friends” on Facebook and 2,000-plus on Instagram, but I know only a handful of them on a deep level. It’s the same, though, when I put my phone down and leave the house: I might hit up my local fitness studio or gather for a book club and see roughly the same people every time, but I don’t know-know them like I do my husband or my best friend. It reminds me that when I was a high-school English teacher, I used to have my students analyze Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask.” We’d discuss the racial context and the concept of double consciousness, but we’d also talk about the broader idea of mask-wearing — how fluid our camouflaging can be from one situation to the next, and how adept many of us are at concealing our life difficulties and feelings of distress. I think about how many times my students and I walked into our classroom, greeted each other, taught or sat through full lessons all day, and tried our best to “leave our baggage” at the door through it all. (Impossible, of course.)

People raised in the modern world, especially in the United States, are very good at silently carrying grief and pain everywhere we go but not so good at vocalizing it. Whether for a death, a breakup or a job loss, we’ve been taught to publicly mourn for a short time — maybe with some Facebook posts or calls to friends — then move our tears to someplace less visible and get on with our lives as quickly as we can. The long-standing expectation to “get over it,” or at least act like we have, has essentially condensed and trivialized the grieving process — which is anything but brief or insignificant — from one generation to the next.

Telling the truth about what’s going on in our lives, especially when our world feels like it’s falling apart, can be daunting. Fortunately, people are finally starting to try. In recent years, millennials and Gen Zers have been using social media as a conduit for opening up about topics typically kept tucked away. Search #grieftok or #deathtok on TikTok and you’ll find an ever-growing community of grievers looking to find connection amid tragedy. There are hyper-local people and ­platforms — the ShrinkChicks podcast, the Instagram accounts of Oshun Family Center, Black Men Heal, and Therapy For Women Center founder Amanda White — working to ­de-stigmatize therapy in ways that feel accessible and relatable. Online communities like Big Little Feelings and Not Safe For Mom Group are normalizing non-idyllic, often hush-hush parts of parenthood like toddler meltdowns and missing your pre-kid life. Even Mayim Bialik, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney have gotten candid about preventive care, ’gramming about Pap smears and mammograms and live-filming their colonoscopies.

“We’re the bridge generation,” my friend Sara says as we chat about all this over tea. “We’re trying to make it easier for people younger than we are and those who come after them to speak the ‘unspeakable.’” And she’s right: As more of us try to put language to our struggles and navigate that learning curve, we’re helping to build a different (dare I say better?) way of communicating and connecting with others — of “becoming more comfortable being ourselves, as opposed to more manufactured versions,” Chayko says — behind the screen and face-to-face.

After going public with my cancer scare, I received — and continue to receive — an overwhelming amount of support from people both online and off. Between 7 p.m., when I clicked the Share button, and 10 a.m. the next morning, more than 250 comments and DMs, a bunch of texts, and more likes than my surprise wedding announcement had gleaned flooded my world — thanking me for sharing my story and being vulnerable, and wishing me a safe, swift recovery. Many of those messages were along the lines of, “I had to go through something similar and felt so alone because nobody else I knew had” — and the conversations that followed reminded me that we’re part of a much larger circle than we realize.

In sharing my pre-cancer diagnosis, I tuned in to what social media once seemed to richly promise: a community that genuinely cares about and seeks to comfort one another. Now, in person and in on-the-app conversations, I’m able to talk about my recent health journey and other hard stuff the universe brings into my life without timidity or shame — a step in cultivating a stronger language toolbox for disclosing my struggles and hopefully helping others do the same. “The only way we will actually be supported and cared for is if we let people in,” Jennifer Chaiken, a licensed marriage and family therapist who’s the other half of the ShrinkChicks duo, reminds me.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled on an Instagram post from a childhood acquaintance. “You have no idea what someone’s life is ACTUALLY like behind their highlight reel on here,” her caption declared. Somewhat automatically, I double-tapped to fill that sought-after heart and followed up with a DM, then wondered: But what if we did?

When my grandmother was alive, she would hang her laundry on clotheslines in her backyard. From childhood to college days, I’d look wide-eyed at her bras and underwear dangling across the small plot of land behind her Mayfair rowhome. “Oh God, but the neighbors!” I always thought to myself, but Grammy never seemed to care. She let her knickers shamelessly sway in the breeze until dry. How courageous, powerful, rebellious it is to take all we keep hidden and lay it bare for the world to see.

Published as “When Social Media Gets Real” in the February 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.