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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

How Frozen Peas Started An Online Cancer-Awareness Movement


Applying a bag of frozen peas directly to her breast shortly after undergoing a needle biopsy that day in December made perfect sense to Susan Reynolds.

"Ice packs are hard and heavy," Reynolds wrote on her blog. "As much as I try to be a good sport I'm not into having a brick sitting on my chest. That bag of peas added a touch of lightness to what could have been a sad and serious tale."

And just like that, a mini-movement was born.

Reynolds, who lives in Sterling, is an artist, an art teacher, a consultant and a devoted participant of social networking Web sites. She had breast cancer, as it turned out, and underwent a mastectomy Dec. 21 followed by reconstructive surgery and more soothing applications of frozen peas.

On the blog she started immediately after her cancer fight began — called (really) Boobs On Ice — Reynolds detailed all this and included a photo of the bag of frozen peas peeking out from underneath her camisole. She also used that photo as her onscreen identifier, or avatar, on the discussion site Twitter.com.

Susan Reynolds, a breast cancer patient, found out that frozen ...

Katherine Frey

Susan Reynolds, a breast cancer patient, found out that frozen peas help with the pain in her breast. She started a blog about her experience with breast cancer and has drawn more than 1,300 followers.

Inspired by Reynolds's photo, dozens of people in her Twitter community — and others who had found out about her diagnosis through the Internet — began creating pea-themed photos in a show of sympathy. They posted the images on the photo-sharing site Flickr.com, or used them as their avatars (which, in this case, have come to be known as "peavatars") on Twitter.

Reynolds said the number of people following and replying to her writings on Twitter has reached about 1,300.

"How this has all spread — it's magic," she said.

The frozen peas not only have sparked messages of support for Reynolds, 59, but have become the emblem of an online community of people sharing their experiences with cancer.

"Women are doing breast self-exams and men are sharing about their aunt's or sister's or mother's struggles with cancer because they are reminded or inspired by something as everyday as peas," Reynolds said.

The Internet buzz soon turned into a low roar as the peas people got noticed by hundreds of bloggers, well-known and otherwise. "The communities may be virtual, but the friendships formed there are real," wrote Shel Israel, co-author of the book "Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk With Customers," on one blog referencing the peas phenomenon.

A New York resident who is one of Reynolds's Twitter followers came up with the idea of donating the equivalent of the cost of two bags of frozen peas, about $5, to cancer research. That led Connie Reece, another online friend, to establish the The Frozen Pea Fund. As of early this week, the fund had raised $7,171 from contributors on three continents since its launch Dec. 21, said Reece, who lives in Austin.

"I had a gut feeling that the Frozen Pea Fund would take off — that peas would 'go viral,' as we say online — but even then it surpassed my expectations," Reece said.

All donations go directly to the American Cancer Society's Making Strides Against Breast Cancer program, Reece said, through a link on the fund's Web site, frozenpeafund.com.

Reynolds said the news she has heard from her doctors was positive, but she was waiting this week for a doctor's word on whether any follow-up plan would include chemotherapy.

This is a screengrab of Frozen Pea Friday on the ...

This is a screengrab of Frozen Pea Friday on the Twitter Web site.

Just by logging on to Twitter, she said, she feels plenty of support and "lightness" as the sea of green peavatars fills her computer screen.

She credits her husband, Bill, with first suggesting that she apply a bag of frozen peas to her breast. She said her four children, ages 22 to 36, also have supported her. She said that by writing and listening to her online community, she is less likely to overburden her family, which has plenty to cope with.

"I had people around me when I got the news, but I think it is hard for them," Reynolds said. "Some people need to be inward and reflective. I needed to talk about it. And I really reveal what I think on Twitter, that I was scared. That first night especially. And the response and the level of support from everyone was just stunning."

"There's nothing good about getting cancer," Reynolds wrote on her blog. "It helps [to] start conversations though."

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