Two weeks ago, Ryan McHenry had a cancerous tumor removed from his right leg. The doctors told him there was a 50 percent chance they’d have to amputate the entire limb — but they wouldn’t know until the operation started.
"Waking up was terrifying," McHenry tells The Verge. "I didn’t know if I was going to have a leg or not. I couldn’t feel anything from the waist down. In a daze, I had to ask the nurse if I still had my leg."
Luckily, he did. And that’s the only part of the nightmare his social media followers heard about. "Leaving the hospital today with BOTH my legs still attached to my body," he wrote on Twitter, with a photo of his lower half, a cast on one leg, a bowler hat on his knee.
McHenry tries to keep things cheery for his fans, in part because he’s a little bit internet famous. He’s the creator of "Ryan Gosling won’t eat his cereal," a series of six second videos made using the app Vine that went viral in May.
"Waking up was terrifying."
McHenry, a filmmaker who lives in Glasgow, created the series after he watched Drive while eating cereal and noticed Gosling’s character at just the right angle. The gimmick is easy: hold a spoon of cereal in front of a shot from a Gosling movie and slowly advance it toward the actor, who appears to reject it.
The series got passed around and sometime around the eighth installment, it blew up. McHenry was up all night reading tweets and answering emails from Entertainment Online and The Huffington Post. He went from having eight followers on Vine to more than 200,000 and was invited to join a secret Facebook group of popular Vine artists.
Around the same time, he’d noticed a painful lump in his leg. He finally went to a doctor, who told him it was fine, returned and was told it was fine, and then got a call telling him it wasn’t fine: he has osteosarcoma, which has spread from his leg to his lungs.
He announced the bad news to his friends, along with his newly acquired fans, on Twitter and Facebook — with an upbeat spin.
I got told yesterday that I have cancer. I would just like to let you all know I'm staying positive and I'm going to fight it. Fuck Cancer.— RYAN McHENRY (@RyanWMcHenry) July 18, 2013
"A lot of my positivity has come down to knowing that I’ve got a small audience out there," he says. "I kind of feel like I need to be positive for them. If I was on my Twitter or on my Vine being really negative, like ‘this is the worst thing ever, this is horrible,’ it just wouldn’t be nice for people to hear."
Since then, McHenry has posted updates from his hospital bed, "cancer selfies," and a Vine of himself shaving his head to prepare for hair loss from chemotherapy.
Talking about cancer has been shown to have a positive effect on patient health, and increasingly, that conversation is happening on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and smaller social networks.
One linguistic analysis of cancer stories on YouTube showed "a sense of dramatic tension" and "high emotional engagement," almost as if the patient’s life were a particularly artful HBO show. Patients who told their stories on YouTube also tended to see their experience as a coherent story, in which they usually go from feeling helpless to taking control. They also tended to be more optimistic when compared with other cancer survivors.
Journalist Xeni Jardin is perhaps the best-known cancer tweeter. After two friends were diagnosed with breast cancer, Jardin decided to get tested and live-tweet the results. "I decided the experience of getting a mammogram would be less scary if I tweeted about it, mocked it, or turned it into a game," she wrote.
She got an unpleasant surprise when her results came back positive for cancer, but she decided to continue chronicling the experience on Twitter, Instagram, and Boing Boing, the blog where she is an editor.
Jardin says the internet helped save her life, although in retrospect she believes introspection and silence might have been more constructive at times. If she had to do it again, she probably would not have live-tweeted her first mammogram.
"I realize now that just as there is value in connecting, there can also be value in disconnecting and just dealing with what’s going on inside our bodies and inside our minds," she told The Guardian.
McHenry has good days and bad days, and on bad days he doesn’t post much — until his fans start getting worried. After one three-week stretch of silence, his Vine followers started to wonder if he’d died. "I think he’s gone," one commenter wrote. McHenry scrambled to reassure them. "I made sure that I went and did another Gosling video," he says.
The concern of strangers has been comforting. A group of Vine artists started a crowdfunding campaign, "Ryan McHenry won’t eat his cancer," while he was undergoing chemotherapy. He emerged from treatment to find more than $10,000 had been raised to ease his transition back into daily life, and more than 300 Vines hashtagged #weloveryan.
More than 300 Vines were hashtagged #weloveryan
"It was incredible. I was just sitting in my hospital bed just watching all this unfold," he says. "The other really bizarre thing is, I’ve never really shown my face or become a character in front of the camera. All I’ve done is put a spoon towards a television."
McHenry has another 20 weeks of chemotherapy and a lung operation before he will be cancer-free. He just posted part 20 of the Gosling series, which he feels he can’t end yet. "As a filmmaker, I like to have a conclusion to things," he says. "The only conclusion I can see out of this whole thing is to have Ryan Gosling respond to this. Even if it’s just him eating cereal."