Special Segment: Internet Bullies

May 5, 2009 Some internet users say instead of finding support online they're being bullied.

"I just read the piece of paper and for the first time saw my diagnosis written down, metastatic breast cancer," said Nicki Spizzirri in tears.

It's hard for Glendale Heights resident Nicki Spizzirri to read what she wrote online after finding out about her second breast cancer diagnosis.

This time it's spread to her bones and lungs.

"I'm a fighter, I'm a survivor," said Spizzirri.

After she was first diagnosed four years ago, Spizzirri went online and started making friends with other survivors on support sites like breast cancer.org. But soon, she says people started posting hateful messages on the forums, attacking other survivors.

Spizzirri says when she tried to stand up for some of the women who were being harassed the bullies turned on her. She says they started picking on her family, then they found her salary online and posted it on the the discussion board.

"I was shocked that anyone that had been diagnosed with breast cancer would be so mean to someone else," said Spizzirri.

"To think that somebody else would do that, just made me think this has gone beyond what's safe. I just was shocked, I was dumbfounded," said Amy.

Another breast cancer survivor, Amy, says people on the site harassed her because she's a lesbian. She says, the bullying was so bad one of her friends who was very sick gave up on the forums.

"She said she was leaving because she didn't want to spend her last days being bullied and that just broke my heart," said Amy.

Psychologist Sherri Edelman says sometimes bullies hide their own issues by attacking other people online.

"That kind of bullying behavior or projecting displacing anger and fear onto others in some dysfunctional way is a defense against themselves dealing with their own fears about their illnesses," said Dr. Edelman.

"Everything we do is trying to create a really safe supportive environment," said Hope Wohl, CEO, breastcancer.org.

Wohl says the site's moderators try to police the forums by removing negative posts.

"The online community allows people to have anonymity...and sometimes that can give people license to say things that they might not say face to face," said Wohl.

Now Spizzirri blogs on a different site. She was banned from breastcancer.org after fighting with some of the bullies. She says she doesn't understand why some breast cancer survivors would be so cruel to others fighting the disease.

"There's a reason that we go to a breast cancer support board. There are things that we say to each other that we can't say to other people. They don't understand it. They don't really understand how you feel inside," said Spizzirri.

Dr. Edelman says the internet can provide some support for breast cancer survivors. But it's important for people who are battling cancer to have strong personal relationships and avoid putting too much trust in people they've met online.

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