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Circle of Friends

It's early evening in Norfolk, Va., where "Janice_78" lives. Across cyberspace, the "Pink Bus" is ready to roll -- ready for breast cancer survivors like her to hop aboard.

Riders on this virtual bus are slogging their way through scans and surgeries, making the best of bald heads and insurance hassles. On the Pink Bus, they get hugs, tears, maybe a few (virtual) strawberry margaritas. As they have found, just typing a few words -- posting a lone message in the abyss -- can bring real friendship.

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The Pink Bus is a joyride, you might say. It departs regularly from one of WebMD's message boards, connecting the group of women and their loved ones who regularly support each other on Breast Cancer: Friend to Friend. This cyber meeting site is one of more than 150 boards devoted to health and lifestyle issues and conditions at WebMD.com.

Medical studies reinforce the importance of support for women with breast cancer, especially after treatment. In one study, women who had recently completed treatment for breast cancer reported having emotional problems and difficulty functioning in social situations. However, with social support they showed significant improvement in their overall quality of life. The Internet has opened a floodgate of opportunities for women seeking support, enabling them to reach out from the comfort of their homes, no matter the time, date, or even the weather.

Just 10 years ago, this wasn't possible -- an amazing Internet connection among so many breast cancer survivors, all fighting the same battles, all knowing too well what another is thinking, feeling. In the 1970s, when my own mother faced breast cancer surgery, she knew no one who had traveled that road. She would have loved the Pink Bus.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time when these battle-weary women find themselves in the spotlight. Raising awareness, of course, is the goal. But for some, the pink ribbons and gimmicks are offensive.

"If you're newly diagnosed, you're scared," says Janice Haines (a.k.a. Janice_78) . "And if you're metastatic, you've pretty much reached the end of your rope. You want a cure, and you want it right now." Still, no one denies that education is critical. "Breast cancer is much more out there than it used to be. People are getting diagnosed at younger and younger ages."

'You Feel So Alone'

In 1998, Haines was among the first to join this message board. She had just finished treatment for stage II cancer; 10 of 16 nodes were positive. She was scared. She was jealous.

"When I was first diagnosed, I didn't know anyone who had this," says Haines. "You feel so alone. You feel depression, anger, jealousy. Your friends' lives go on. They can go home to their families, whereas my life was torn apart. At the doctor's office, the nurses were so supportive and so kind. But at the end of the day, they could clock out and go home. I couldn't. I felt bad feeling that way, feeling jealous." When she went online, she found kindred souls who understood. "I could talk it out. I could vent," she says.

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