I have been involved in a number of discussions this week about friends' reactions to our breast cancer. Each woman who raised this topic felt that she was the only one with this problem and, upon learning how common it is, wondered why no one had warned her what to anticipate. The summary is that there are inevitably surprises about friendships. All of us are disappointed by some thought-to-be good friends and very pleasantly surprised by others whom we knew less well.
Several women have recently described the loss of a best friend over the course of breast cancer treatment. In each case, the friend was not present in important times and ways. She may have not visited after surgery or not offered a ride and company for a chemotherapy appointment or just stopped calling. Some "friends" hurt us with comments and stories about others whom they have known who have not had good outcomes with breast cancer. On the flip side, there are always people whose reactions and involvement are unexpectedly wonderful. I often hear of acquaintances who offer to organize meals or rides, neighbors who thoughtfully call to ask if they can pick up something at the grocery store, or work colleagues who tactfully cover for us when we need a break. Former slight acquaintances may become close friends by sharing this time with us.
A third group of "friend surprises" are those women whom we meet because of breast cancer. Lifelong friendships can begin in a support group or daily contact in the Radiation Oncology waiting room. Even if there are real differences between us, our shared diagnosis and experience make us close. We understand one another.
When I meet a newly diagnosed woman, I sometimes suggest that she make a list of likely supportive friends. I tell her to list those people on whom she can depend and also those whom she expects to disappear. Then, I tell her, put that list away and don't look at it for at least six months. When she looks again, there are sure to be surprises--on both lists.
It is easy to be glad and grateful for the new friends. It is harder to know what to do about damaged relationships. Sometimes, the only possibility seems to be to let go, to recognize that lives change and friends don't always last. Other times, a friendship has been so valuable that it is worth the (possibly) painful risk of reaching out and trying to talk about your disappointment and sense of abandonment. Whatever you choose to do, remind yourself that a friend's behavior is due to her issues, not yours. She likely was so frightened by your diagnosis that she could not cope. This is not an excuse, merely an explanation and reassurance that the change is not your fault. If you have lost previously good friends, treasure, even more, the new ones. And be prepared to use what you have learned to help your next friend who has a crisis.
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