Monetizing My Cancer (Or, How I Almost Became a Kardashian)


Almost 10 years ago I was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma, a slow-growing but incurable blood cancer. One of the first things I did after I was diagnosed was to start a blog. It was an easy way to keep family and friends updated on what was happening with me.

I’ve known too many cancer patients who stopped hearing from people they knew because their loved ones didn’t know what to say, or didn’t want to call at the wrong time, or didn’t want to seem nosy. The blog let people read about my oncologist appointments, my treatments and how I was feeling day by day. They could just read, or they could leave a comment, even if it was an encouraging, “Glad to hear you had a good day!”

Over time I started writing less about my day and more about things that excited me: new treatments in the news, inspirational articles online and even my take on medical journal articles about my disease. And pretty soon I started hearing more from people I didn’t know than I did from friends and family.

According to my blog platform provider, I’ve had readers from all over the world — about 70 different countries. And those readers are wonderful. They leave comments for me. They share their stories. They encourage one another. Not long ago, one of them wrote, “This is my happy place when I’m feeling down. I feel like we’re all extended family.”

That was pretty awesome to hear.

A few months ago I received an email from a public relations service that wanted to list my blog. If I agreed to it, publicists would be able to contact me. They could send me press releases, set up interviews with experts and give me other story ideas for the blog. It seemed a little strange to me (even with all of those readers, I still think of the blog as just a way to keep in touch with family and friends). But I was flattered my blog was well-known enough for such a service.

I told the service to sign me up.

The very next day I got an email from a publicist. She was promoting a line of all-natural juices with cute names. I thought, “What does this have to do with cancer?” But then I read the rest of the email and saw she was offering a free sample.

And then I remembered something I had read about recently: celebrities with large social media followings sometimes receive money to advertise a product. They just mention how much they love the product, and they get a few thousand dollars. The Kardashians are a good example; just one of their tweets or Instagram posts can bring them several times as much as I make in a year.

My mind started churning: I could monetize my cancer!

While this was the first time I had thought of it, I’m hardly the first person to think about doing it. There are many cancer patients (and others with different conditions) who use social media to promote products they have used, enjoyed and benefitted from. They have worked hard to build a following, to learn about their condition and to share their
knowledge with others.

There are other patients with blogs who post advertisements and make money from them. I’m fortunate I am still able to work, but for many online health advocates, social media monetization is their only source of income since the conditions they live with have made it hard for them to work and pay for health insurance. We should support these folks.

I thought some more about the juice email. If I asked for a free sample I felt like I’d have to endorse the product, but also try to make it look natural. How was I supposed to do that? Maybe take a picture of myself in a sexy pose standing next to a bike, drinking the juice and saying, “We cancer patients have to keep up our exercise!

I had fantasies about how well this could work. I’d endorse all kinds of products on my blog. Start with free juice and move up to cash. I’d become a Kardashian.

I could even start spelling “cancer” with a K.

I wrote back to the juice publicist. I didn’t want to come right out and ask for a free sample so I said, “Thanks for the email. I’m new to all of this. How does it work?” I was hoping she’d say, “I’ll send a sample to you and if you like it you can let readers know!” But I didn’t hear anything back for a week. And when I did finally get another email from her, it was a press release for a completely different product.

In the weeks after I got emails from publicists who would offer to help me with my sweaty armpits, give me a diet for my PMS, solve the gang problem in my community, become a bee keeper, get rid of my mercury fillings, have a scary robot do surgery on my (non-existent) prostate cancer and a few dozen more. I even got one promoting personal security devices that were painted pink — with a cancer awareness ribbon emblazoned on the side.

Nothing I could really write about in a blog about follicular lymphoma, though.

And so, I gave up my dream of becoming a Kardashian. I decided not to monetize my cancer after all — at least not when it comes to my blog. I have no problem with people who do (like I said, for some people, the income is a literal life-saver) as long as they are providing inspiration based on solid information, and not selling snake oil and taking advantage of people who are looking for some hope.

But for me, I’m going to keep writing things in the blog for free — things my little extended online cancer family likes to hear. Lots of times they tell me how much my blog has helped them. I hope they understand how much they have helped me. There’s nothing better than knowing someone else, even someone you’ve never met, from a country on the other side of the world, has been through what you’ve been through and felt the way you’ve felt.

That’s priceless.

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Thinkstock photo by Medioimages/Photodisc

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