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Sharing the good, bad and ugly of cancer

Craig Clarke shares a tender moment with his wife, Tracey, just a few weeks before her death from an aggressive brain tumor in December 2013. ‘Social media gave us strength,’ Craig said. ‘And it continues to be an enormous help to me now as I mourn.”

Craig Clarke shares a tender moment with his wife, Tracey, just a few weeks before her death from an aggressive brain tumor in December 2013. ‘Social media gave us strength,’ Craig said. ‘And it continues to be an enormous help to me now as I mourn.”

After she was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor in July 2011, Tracey Clarke turned to the Internet to ask friends and family for prayers of healing and strength.

The day after Christmas 2013, her husband, Craig, posted a plea for prayers for a peaceful death for Tracey.

Craig and Tracey Clarke at a friend’s wedding in 2010, the year before she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Craig and Tracey Clarke at a friend’s wedding in 2010, the year before she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Both prayers were answered, he said.

Throughout Tracey’s fight with a type of aggressive brain tumor known as glioblastoma multiforme, the Stafford County woman found both healing and strength. But, ultimately, the tumor ended her life. On Dec. 29, three days after Craig’s last appeal for prayers, she died peacefully.

In the 29 intervening months, Tracey and Craig battled cancer by arming themselves with friends, family and faith. And one of the biggest weapons in their arsenal turned out to be social media.

“Social media gave us strength,” Craig said. “It accentuated the community aspect. It definitely was very encouraging, and it was an enormous help. And it continues to be an enormous help to me now as I mourn.”

Before the glioblastomacancer, Tracey had an online presence—as an artist, she had a website and a blog and some social media, which Craig usually managed for her. At first, social media didn’t seem the best match for Tracey, an introvert who didn’t like crowds but who drew a following of loyal friends. She made deep, intimate connections and preferred lengthy, personal conversations to 140-character tweets.

Social media was more Craig’s thing. He wasn’t shy—and was more likely to be at the center of the party than his wife.

Craig and Tracey Clarke at a friend’s wedding in 2010, the year before she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Craig and Tracey Clarke at a friend’s wedding in 2010, the year before she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Craig and Tracey married in 1999, and moved to the Fredericksburg area in 2010. They set out to find a church that matched their faith in God and their love of interracial worship services. They started attending New City Fellowship in Fredericksburg.

There, Tracey started a Bible study for other women. Yet she wanted more than a traditional study where people read Scriptures and talked a little bit about the verses. Tracey wanted something that went deeper, said Kathleen Lewis, who got to know Tracey during those studies.

“She wanted something more intimate,” Lewis said. “Where we were willing to open our lives up to each other. It looked more like a prayer group and a support group than a Bible study.”

Tracey earnestly asked questions, such as, “What is it like when God speaks to you?” She opened up about her struggles with depression and the fact that she didn’t think God spoke to her.

And in the summer of 2011, Tracey told the group that she had been having severe headaches. At 42, she was at a great point in her life—she ran marathons and her artwork was beginning to sell. Some friends referred to her as an exercise fanatic, and Tracey was almost obsessed about health, both eating well and staying fit.

On July 21, she had another headache. Her left arm felt odd. And she began to smell and hear things that weren’t in the room.

Craig was out of town on a business trip, and a friend rushed Tracey to the emergency room. Doctors discovered tumors in Tracey’s brain.

Tracey prepared for brain surgery, but the couple still didn’t know what to expect. Craig was still hoping they would discover the tumor was benign. Just 10 days later, he learned that the tumor was malignant and nearly always fatal.

Almost immediately, the couple reached out online, asking for prayers and support.

And in a world where people sanitize Facebook posts, glamorize Instagram photos and get witty over Twitter, both Clarkes decided to keep it real.

“Our view was that we were going to be 100 percent open,” Craig said. “We were going to share the good, the bad, the ugly.”

In lengthy and eloquent blog posts, Tracey shared intimate details of her fight with cancer—including her depression, her doubts and her pain.

She wrote about the cancer treatments that left her drained, exhausted and unable to paint. She received treatments at Mary Washington Hospital and at the Brain Tumor Center at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. Tracey endured surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

Both Tracey and Craig eschewed easy answers as they wrote about the experience. They fought against clichés like “You can beat this” and “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Or the notion that God gave trials to the strongest people.

In blog post after blog post, the couple openly wrestled with their faith, even as they relied again and again on Scripture and prayers. In the end, both believed that God might not heal Tracey but that he would redeem their pain.

And that online honesty resonated. People from all over the country posted comments on the Clarkes’ blogs and Facebook pages. When fellow artists held a fundraiser for Tracey’s medical expenses, some of the attendees hadn’t met Craig or Tracey in person and knew them only through their blogs and Facebook posts, Lewis said.

And Tracey read every comment, every email, every post on her wall, said her friend Pam Allen. Tracey couldn’t respond to every one, especially as her health began to deteriorate in 2013, but she often mentioned the strength she drew from the supporters, Allen said.

“She felt that she had a purpose in having cancer; she felt she had been given a voice and she was reaching people for God as a result of the pain,” Allen said. “She had been given a voice to use, and she was honored up until the time she died over that.”

By her final summer, Tracey was losing control of her body. She couldn’t walk and needed round-the-clock care. Craig’s co-workers at Marine Corps Base Quantico donated sick leave so he could stay home with her.

Tracey spent much of her final months on the couch. But she usually had her smartphone at her side and kept up with the encouragement online. Friends and family also texted her messages of encouragement or verses of Scripture.

And technology made it possible for friends and family to help Tracey, even when they couldn’t drop their jobs or other commitments, Allen said. Or for those who lived far away—Tracey’s circle of support included people in other states and in other countries.

She was sure that Tracey’s support network would continue to use social media to help Craig as he mourns.

And she was right.

On Dec. 26, Tracey entered hospice. Craig turned to the blog, writing: “After waging significant battles and climbing steep mountains for 29 months, I am praying it will be a downhill ride for Tracey for the rest of the way. Will you pray that with me?”

When she died on Dec. 29, friends and family supported Craig through his grief. An online fundraiser for funeral expenses raised enough money to cover the costs and to donate money to Duke for brain cancer research.

And people flooded Craig’s email and social media feeds to share Scriptures, messages of encouragement and cherished memories of Tracey.

“In a very real and tangible way, I’ve experienced what it means to have a community,” Craig said. “The love and encouragement really is a big deal. We think as Americans we should be autonomous and self-sufficient. But that’s not how the Lord intends for us to live.”

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973 aumble@freelancestar.com 

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/newsdesk/2014/03/15/sharing-the-good-bad-and-ugly-of-cancer/

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