My Breast Cancer Online Friends Get Me

Emily Helck was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 28. (Credit: Courtesy Emily Helck)

By Emily Helck

I'm in Las Vegas, and I've lost my breast.

To be completely truthful, it isn't my real breast. It's a prosthetic (hand crocheted and stuffed with wool) that is filling in for my absent left one. I'm here with 14 other women, all members of an online cancer support group. We're here, and we're flouting warnings about meeting strangers from the Internet.

I don't remember when the idea of Vegas first floated through the ether, but it became something we would say when things got bad. "We'll meet in Vegas next year" became this crucial glimmer, an affirmation that yes, there will be a next year, and yes, it will be better.

The villa we've rented is cream stucco, and sidles up to a mountain to the east. There is a swimming pool with rocks and lights and palm trees and a water slide, and it's lush and green. Our expanse of sky is blue and cloudless. When I peer over the fence, the surroundings are arid and rocky. It's a true oasis, in the middle of a hell of a lot of desert.

We had started out online as usernames and collections of diagnoses and treatments, reporting timelines of our hair loss, and other side effects. At the risk of stating the obvious, chemo is hard. Physically, yes, but even more so, emotionally. I plodded along for most of the autumn, chiming in with the group here and there, sharing things I'd learned. Over time, it became easy to send things out into our snug little corner of the vast virtual world.

Toward the end of my chemo regimen, a couple of weeks after superstorm Sandy, I had something of a breakdown. I had reported an innocuous seeming symptom to my oncologist, which concerned her enough to send me to a neurologist. She got me an appointment for a few days later.

I woke up the next morning full of dread. I sobbed into my pillow while my husband tried to comfort me. There was nothing to do but wait, so I vowed to stay in bed. I refused to walk around and eat breakfast and buy groceries as if nothing were happening. It made sense to me, but my husband didn't get it.

"It feels like you're giving up," he said.

I lay in bed, curtains drawn, with my dog and a mountain of crumpled tissues. I cried more, and watched a lot of bad TV, and around 3 p.m. wondered if I was going crazy. I logged onto the message board on my phone. I tapped out a message, an SOS, and sent it out of my darkened bedroom and into a blue-white world made of millions of pixels. My message traveled into outer space and back again, while I turned my pillow over, looking for the cool side. Replies trickled in, some commiserating, some offering practical advice, some affirmation. They told me to take care of myself, whatever that meant in that moment.

And when, a few days later, the neurologist put my fears to rest, my group cheered right along with me. I felt supported, in the truest sense of the word.

I lost my prosthetic breast on the second day of the Vegas trip. I had been taking it out to sleep and to swim, and somewhere during all that in and out, it disappeared. After a quick, fruitless search, I join a few of the women on a visit to Red Rock Canyon. We take a short hike, helping each other on the rocks when we need it. In the afternoon, I go with another group to the Atomic Testing Museum, where we pose for goofy pictures with a Geiger counter wand positioned over our radiation-burned chests.

Here's the thing: When you have cancer it becomes your whole world. It informs my experiences as much as the fact that I grew up in New Jersey or went to college or have a dog. Yet I rarely speak aloud about it. To be able to spend four days talking about this experience freely, as often as it popped into my head (I think about breast cancer probably about as often as an adolescent boy thinks about breasts), was a gift.

The future for all of us is uncertain, a mix of statistics, hopes and hunches. But whatever it holds, we have existed in this place together. There is a surrealness to transforming virtual space into real space - and what better locale than Las Vegas, that weird imitation of life. Each of us materialize, seemingly from nowhere, all of us in these transitional moments: finishing treatment, growing out our hair, in various stages of reconstruction. Being together is exquisite, and temporal.

Flying home, the sun sets behind me. Soon the stars are visible, and the night cozies around the plane. I could have stayed a week, a year. The world outside had ceased to exist at times. There was just that pool, and our voices and the sky.

I couldn't tell you what they all did for a living or their children's names or where they went to high school. But I could tell you what they thought about when they couldn't sleep at night. I could tell you what would make them laugh in the emergency room. I could tell you what they needed in their darkest moments, because, in all likelihood, I was needing the same thing.

I think of my lost breast, and how at home, on my way to work, I would sometimes panic that I forgot it, and clutch at my chest till I felt its familiar mushiness. But in Vegas, I went hiking, to museums, to restaurants, without it, and was fine. Later, once I'm home and folding laundry, I will find it again. It will have accidentally gone through the washer and dryer, and the wool inside will have turned into felt.

The plane banks, and my window, which had been full of stars, is suddenly filled with the ground below. The lights from houses and cars twinkle against velvety blackness, and if I soften my eyes I can't tell the difference between the earth and the sky.

Emily Helck is a 29-year-old artist from Jersey City, N.J. When she began chemotherapy in September 2012, she started her blog, "Real Tumors of New Jersey." She posted a video containing a year of self portraits to her blog on Sept. 29, which has since gone viral.

"A Day in the Life" is a series of blogs written by people who are living with medical conditions.