Ailing Athletes Connect With Fans Through TikTok Storytelling – NBC Southern California

One of the biggest groups of people to headline the social media platform TikTok is those with powerful stories. For creators who are struggling or disabled, it acts as a place where they can share their experiences and find community online. 
For instance, people who have debilitating illnesses provide “Day in the Life” compilations, while injured athletes dedicate their social media content to helping others. Explaining their situations, not only spreads awareness about the adversity they’re facing, but it creates a relatable environment, inspiring others in the process. 
TikTok avoids the exclusion of those who might be “different” by allowing all people to celebrate their identities and educate others.
“Disabled people’s stories and messages have always been around, but now society has reached a place where people are now starting to listen,” explained Jessica Lopez, social media manager of @diversability (on TikTok) who also has a chronic illness. 
Diversability is an organization that aims to “elevate disability pride, together.” The social enterprise is run by people who have disabilities and people who support those with disabilities. Lopez uses the organization’s social media platforms to build community by producing videos about disability inclusion and awareness. Its TikTok account’s aim is to “amplify people with disabilities from all walks of life, and social media makes that possible.”
Any conversation about the lack of disability inclusion should be a conversation about ableism. #Fyp #DisabilityInclusion #Ableism #NDEAM #DEI #DiversityEquityAndInclusion #DisabilityAdvocate #FlexEveryAngle

“We spend much of our lives fitting ourselves into a mold to make others feel comfortable, but on TikTok, that’s not as necessary,” added Lopez. “We can share authentic clips of our lives and what we go through on a daily basis. Not only can this help educate people on what it’s like to live with disabilities, but it also brings disabled people closer to one another.”
Take Michael Cramer, a 21-year-old Miami native and cancer survivor, who found his saving grace in TikTok. For the Pre-Olympic windsurfer, it was the diamond in the rough during the last two years, which happened to be the most challenging of his life. Just as Cramer’s Olympic career was beginning, he had to take a sabbatical to tend to his medical condition.
Cramer was diagnosed with Hepatosplenic T-Cell Lymphoma on July 14, 2020, just two months after his 19th birthday and in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. He had to undergo aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatment, as well as a bone marrow transplant, that left him immunocompromised. Social distancing became normal for Cramer. At first, it was unbearable, but then he found TikTok.
“I try my best to make my videos for other people, so that when they see them they are inspired and feel less alone,” Cramer said. “I feel I have created an audience and group of amazing people that should all be connected.”
I ❤️ working out. Its helped me so much. #cancer #fitness #health
Cramer and his mother, Ashlee, teamed up to produce hundreds of videos talking about his journey through cancer: his treatment regimens, mental health struggles and his physical therapy routine leading to his ultimate comeback. The two even wrote multiple rap songs with cancer-centric lyrics to hopefully brighten the smiles of some people going through the same things.
“I love making TikToks,” Michael said. “I try to make inspirational compilations there. I also do funny videos and updates from the hospital on TikTok. It has been a great platform for me to connect with people and bring in a large audience.”
#mentalhealthmatters #mentalhealth
Currently, Michael has over 94,100 followers and 4.3 million likes on TikTok, with his most-watched video having 14.6 million views. He posts multiple times weekly and receives anywhere from 6,000 to 60,000 views per video.
People find connection through Michael’s story, as shown through the thousands of comments spread across his videos featuring his life updates and unrelentingly uplifting attitude. 
“Your ability to stay so positive and your so faith-forward attitude is more inspiring than you will ever know!” reads one comment. 
“You and your videos helped me go through one of the toughest experiences in my life. I didn’t feel so alone. Thank you,” says another. 
“I am going to show this video to my daughter. Thank you for being such an inspiration.”
Some commenters have disabilities themselves. “You truly inspire me. I have a disability. Don’t know why it happened. It can’t be explained. But I see you and know there is nothing I can’t overcome.”
“I’m so proud of him,” his mother Ashlee added. “I love that coming back from hell, he has found this beautiful path of wanting to share his stories.” 
Eighteen-year-old Najla Brannin, who died on Nov. 17, suffered from Rhabdomyosarcoma and took a similar path to Cramer. Brannin, who participated as an artistic swimmer in the Junior Olympics on six occasions, was diagnosed in 2021. 
The advocate for mental health and sarcoma awareness began posting on TikTok with similar intentions – connect, inspire, and bring hope to those dealing with similar trauma.
#greenscreenvideo Excuse the terrible quality but this was definitely one of my proudest moments 🙂 i hope to inspire others that anything is possible if you are passionate about it. trust me. #fyp #foryou #survivor #synchro #swim #nationals #cancer #cancerawareness
“It was so random, I just randomly posted a video,” Brannin said in October. “Then it blew up and I just took it from there. I never had intentions of it blowing up, especially a video having 50 million views. You could never imagine that.”
Thought it was time to finally share my story <3 let me know if you guys have any questions or just want to talk @sarcomaalliance #childhoodcancer #sarcoma #cancer #sarcomaalliance #sarcomaawareness #foryou #fyp #cancerawareness
Brannin made it her mission to mix humor with the harsh realities of cancer so that she could reach and perhaps relate to young people in the same position. 
“I want people not to take everything so seriously,” said Brannin, who was aware of the seriousness of her illness. “Don’t dwell over the things in life you can’t control.”
Made a new cancer friend in the hospital:))) #cancer #friends #cancerruinedoursenioryears @pribee002 #fyp
Brannin’s account has over 186,000 followers and 19.5 million likes on TikTok, with her most-watched video having 52.8 million views. On an average post, Brannin receives anywhere from 100,000 to one million views.
Like Cramer’s followers, a plethora of people found a connection through Brannin’s journey. “The only reason I kept with it [social media] is because people said they were going through the same thing or they knew someone, and that video helped them. That’s why I did it, if there was a chance I could be helping someone.” 
Brannin’s father posted a video on his daughter’s TikTok account announcing her death in November. The comments that surfaced as a result of the post portray sheer kindness, gratitude and vulnerability for Brannin and the community she built on the platform.
In a similar light, 24-year-old Paralympian Bo Kramer utilizes TikTok to share her battle with cancer and help others determined to make their comeback.
“It is fun to make the movies and hopefully spread some awareness around the Paralympic sports,” said the Dutch wheelchair basketball player.
Kramer, who suffered from a rare bone cancer adamantinoma as a kid, has 5,195 followers and 302,200 likes on TikTok, along with 5,019 followers on Instagram.
“I really hope to show the world that it is possible to be the hero of your own life,” Kramer said. “Even if things don’t go as planned or you get kicked down 10 times … If you step up 11 times, I believe that dreams do come true.”
GOLDEN girl ???? #fyp #gold #goldengirl #olympics #paralympics #foryou #dreams
Despite its benefits, TikTok still has issues when it comes to inclusivity and accessibility. In fact, Cramer even said he’s had a few hateful comments.
With hopes of mediating, TikTok came up with a set of censorship policies in 2019 to suppress content from users who could be susceptible to cyberbullying or harassment, specifically to individuals with facial disfigurement, autism, Down syndrome, and people with birthmarks and other physical differences.
“The team at TikTok that developed the video suppression policy may have earnestly believed it was a helpful reaction to the scourge of bullying,” said Elena Botella from Slate.
Ironically, though, this supposed solution actually got its own backlash because this censorship of videos offended the people posting, according to Netzpolitik. They felt the policy was discriminatory. 
Nonetheless, when it comes down to it, TikTok has its downside and upside, and in Cramer’s case – the app has been a positive experience.
“TikTok gives me a great community and when I see others posting I see an opportunity to make a friend because they are going through a similar situation,” he said.
It’s a mutualistic relationship, not just one-sided. Not only does TikTok provide Cramer with a cancer community full of thoughtful individuals who understand his new way of life, but the Florida native genuinely believes his audience benefits from his content as well. 
“When my audience sees me in the hospital, I hope it gives them perspective on life and makes them grateful for what they have,” said Cramer. “I also hope my audience bonds with me and can take this experience to grow with me. It helps a lot by showing them there are people like me going through situations that are difficult. I think people see my videos and are given hope.”
Cramer, Brannin and Kramer have touched several lives, simply by posting their real, raw stories on social media.
“Not only can this help educate people on what it’s like to live with disabilities,” reaffirmed Lopez, “but it also brings disabled people closer to one another.”


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