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On Friday's Cancer Connection series, The Early Show unit manager Marci Waldman met for the very first time Lori Dixon, Stacey Sforza and Shirley Bubel. These are the women who have offered her support and guidance for months as she dealt with her breast cancer.

"Seven months ago I logged on to get information," says Waldman. "I did not log on to gain a family. I had my family. I had the most incredible friends. I had everybody here, who just loved me and supported me. You know, I never thought that sitting in my living room in front of a little box and typing away I would have this. I mean, this is unbelievable."

Before Waldman joined her cyber sisters, she says she attended a local support group at a cancer center and she quickly turned around and walked out because everyone there was older than she was.

Since she wanted to find a community she could relate to, she turned to the Internet. Little did she know that one of her new friends would turn out to be 67-year-old Shirley Bubel.

Their bond is an example of the advantages of online support groups. Bubel could just as easily have been sitting in that room at the cancer center. Waldman might never have met her or given her a chance. But, online, nobody can judge you on age, race or other physical characteristics.

"I think the main thing that I found is the anonymity lets you be perfectly honest," says Bubel. "Marci could tell me things that she wouldn't tell her mother because she'd scare her to death. She could say it to me."

Waldman points out that, online, she did not have to bother with the usual formalities and initial boundaries. She formed close relationships with these women right away because they were discussing such intimate subjects.

All the women in Waldman's virtual circle of friends say it is very difficult to be completely open about their disease with family and friends.
Dixon says sometimes the burden they have is too much for family to bear.

"Things that you don't want to say to them because you don't want to upset them, things that you're feeling. And you just don't want them to be upset, but you can tell the people online because they'll support you in a way because they've gone through it. So they know what you're doing."

And the Internet, the women say, have given them the freedom to do so.

"These people can be more objective than the people who really know you," Sforza says. "Plus, they've been there. I just want people to listen to me and validate my fears - I have a right to them."

In addition to having her fears calmed and questions answered, Sforza notes she also found that helping others was therapeutic. By talking Marci through buying a wig, she says, she re-lived her own experience. And instead of being painful, the conversations helped her realize how far she had come since that time.

Bubel says people need to see others doing well, "When they're all starting especially the newest ones, they don't see that. It's kind of like, gee, has anybody survived this? There are lots of people that do. Once you begin talking about it, then you get over the idea that it's some kind of social disease, which irritates me to no end. Then you find out that, yes, people do survive, they do very well. There are hundreds of women that have done very well."

And Bubel says that after four years on the boards, she can tell when women are beginning to heal.

With this series, Waldman says, her hope is that women dealing with breast cancer will get the same thing she got from the Web site

"It's an incredible sense of empowerment," she says. "Cancer totally strips you of not only your dignity, but your power and a sense of control in your life. I think going online and meeting other women online gives you a sense of power back," which she says is very important when fighting this battle.