Facebook, Online Blogging Become Outlets for One APA Cancer Patient

By Melissa Chua, Web Reporter
Published June 5, 2009

Online social networks like Facebook and Twitter are usually the place to keep tabs on your latest favorite celebrity or join like-minded socially conscious groups. But Jessica Lum, 21, is using Facebook to talk about her life-threatening cancer and how she's dealing with her pending death. 

Since diagnosed with stage four pheochromocytoma, a rare cancer that forms in the adrenal gland, in December of 2008, Jessica has turned to online forums and a personal blog to update friends about her condition. It's also helping her deal with the roller coaster of emotions that come with battling cancer.

"I write to my audience of peers, of my friends, in order to help them and myself understand the situation I'm in," says Jessica from a hospital bed at UCSF Medical Center. "When I write, whether it's about my cancer condition or silly pop-culture trends, I really just try to write in a way that my peers can relate to and understand."

Sadly, things look dire for the Sacramento native. The average survival rate for pheochromocytoma cancer is about four and a half years with no cases having complete remission, says Dr. Paul Fitzgerald, Jessica's current physician and clinical professor of medicine at UCSF.

Jessica, an English major and geography and environmental sciences minor, was a fulltime senior at UCLA juggling three jobs: photo editor at the Daily Bruin, an English tutor for athletes, and a student photographer and designer for UCLA Recreation, the campus's leisure center. She was your average college student - going to bars and relaxing at house parties on the weekends. Little did she know a series of events would soon change her life completely.

Diagnosis

It started with a severe cough that wouldn't go away in November of 2008. After multiple visits to the doctor, Jessica's pulmonologist finally discovered a tumor about the size of a grapefruit on her abdomen as well as masses on different parts of her body. After various tests, more CAT scans and prolonged waiting, Jessica's primary doctor determined she had an aggressive form of pheochromocytoma cancer.

Jessica had no symptoms at first. But by the middle of last February, she was confined at home due to high fevers and aching bones. Since the cancer spread to her bones, lungs and liver, Jessica has trouble doing many of the things she loves to do.

"I can't do most of the things I like to do like snowboarding," says Jessica, who has been a seasonal snowboarder since seventh grade.

She soon moved back home to Sacramento with her retired parents who have become her caretakers.

After seeing Jessica go through a series of extensive chemotherapy last March, her father Bob retired from his teaching job at Sacramento City College saying it was a "hard decision, but necessary."

"This is not the life I expected post retirement," says Jessica's mother Anna, who retired from her community care licensing job with the state of California. "We're here for her and support her to help her in any way we can, and of course we wanted her to graduate and be on her own, [but] she was forced by this cancer to depend on us."

Talking Cancer

Jessica describes her family as a non-traditional Asian family and says she was always encouraged to be open about her feelings. So it's no surprise she's broadcasting her cancer experience to a wide audience.

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