Is blogging good for your health? Ian Spratley believes so: he wrote an online diary throughout his illness with advanced bowel cancer and believes it was as crucial as the chemotherapy and surgery were to seeing him through. "There were some very bleak times - at one point I was given a less than 50% chance of survival," he says. "I had amazing support from my partner and my family and friends, but reasoning my situation out through a blog was the best way of dealing with it for me."
More and more people are turning to the internet in the wake of a diagnosis of serious illness. It tends to be the bloggers who die who make it into the press - such as 26-year-old Adrian Sudbury, who died of leukaemia last month after documenting his battle with the illness at baldyblog.freshblogs.co.uk - although many others are chronicling their conditions through to recovery. Spratley says that the experience of recording his journey through diagnosis, surgery, hospital stays and ileostomy bags (for faeces) was not only "hugely cathartic" but it felt healing, too. "At times," he says, "I felt my cancer was leaving with each word I wrote. I was amazed at how much it helped me to deal with the issues, and how much better it made me feel."
Kevin Leitch, 38, blogs on his battle with manic depression, which he was diagnosed with as a teenager. "It feels like all the stuff that's been swirling round my head since I was a kid can come out in my blog," he says. "It's giving me a way to categorise and articulate and work through my experiences. I don't feel any better about what I've been through, but I do feel I can look back and understand what was happening to me. It's helped me make sense of things."
You could argue that these sentiments apply just as much to personal diary-writing as to online blogging: so why go public? The answer, for many, is that there is a feelgood factor in passing on information to readers around the world who may be suffering from the same condition. "Even if you only get one or two comments, it's uplifting to feel you've been able to help someone," says Leitch. "I got a message from someone the other day who said his partner had manic depression, and he'd never been able to understand what she was going through until he read my blog. It gave him insights into her state of mind, and that helped them both." Becky (who doesn't want to disclose her surname) blogs as "R.Gyle" on the NHS Choices website about being an asthma sufferer and says it makes her day when someone writes to tell her that she has made them chuckle. "Life with severe asthma is a struggle, and you have to keep a sense of humour or you go under," she says. "I like to share that with people."
Blogging also provides a chance to tell it like it is, smashing the taboos around the nitty gritty of serious illness. Spratley, for example, spared his readers no details in his meticulous accounts of how he coped with a constantly leaking ileostomy bag. It's stomach-churningly honest and so it should be, he says, because it lets others know the reality of your situation while reassuring those who might be in the same boat. "All too often you feel you're the only person who's going through this frustrating time," he says. "And then you get a message from someone in exactly the same position - and what's more they say here are a few ideas that helped me, and might help you."
Are there any risks in blogging your way through ill-health? Disclosure is one: Leitch used to blog on an open site, but switched to a password-only forum after worrying about exposing his history to would-be employers. "I've got three children and I need to work," he says. "These days when you go for an interview you know the employer has probably searched for your name on the internet. It made me aware that you're giving away a lot of detail about your life that you might not want someone, down the line, to know." Becky, the asthma blogger, has similar concerns. "I don't want to be unable to say what I feel on a blog because I know the medical staff where I'm being treated could read it and see everything I'm saying," she says. "Anonymity is safer."
Others worry about the effect of blogs on readers, especially those suffering from the same or a similar medical condition. "Things in print have a kind of authority," says Dr Kat Arney of Cancer Research UK. "My concern is that you get one person using a new drug, it seems to be working for them and they start writing about it - and that makes other people want it, even though it isn't yet tested. Swapping experiences on the internet is no substitute for proper scientific trials."
Illness blogs can also make heartbreaking reading, such as that of Louise Snape, a 30-year-old Mancunian who was diagnosed with the potentially fatal heart disease, dilated cardiomyopathy, after her newborn twin girls were found to have the condition. "Finding yourself in a situation like this is totally unbelievable," she says. "You can't imagine anything worse. The girls, Katie and Lauren, are three. Katie has had a heart transplant and Lauren and I are being assessed for them.
"Writing my blog keeps me sane. I think that without it I'd go mad. I can't get out much because I'm not strong enough. I can't even take the girls to the park. Doing this gives me something to focus on when they're in bed and I've finally got a few minutes to myself. And we do get lots of feedback from all over the world. People who read my blog really do care about me and the girls. I can't put into words what a difference that makes to my life".
In their own words ...
I'm not depressed, but I am fed up. This can be a very lonely disease. Despite the best efforts of friends and family, we still spend endless hours on our own, receiving, or recovering from, treatment. I spend a lot of time living inside my head. Apart from the medics, no one knows more about my cancer than me. Sometimes I go to dark places or have dark thoughts - I see the mind as an attic - I simply like to go in and have a good poke around.
Ian Spratley's bowel-cancer blog,
Today has been a pretty good day. Simon's mum came round to see the twins and, of course, the girls loved seeing grandma. My big sister Sarah is staying over because we have to go and lay some flowers down for our dad who died in September 2007 of the same heart condition as mine. You don't realise how quickly things can change and how life can be taken away without any notice. Life is fragile for us anyway: living with dilated cardiomyopathy is like being on death row waiting for your time.
Louise Snape's heart-disease blog,
One of the things that manic depression tends to play havoc with is insight into one's own condition. Especially when manic. It is vital during times that you think you are approaching mania that you give yourself a chance to get a bit of insight. The best way to do this is via a combination of mood charts and friends/family or even just non-manic people. When you are manic, it is too late. Everything seems like a brilliant idea and you feel like an unstoppable force put on the world to make XXX right (where XXX is whatever thing has popped into your head).
Kevin Leitch's manic-depression blog,