Cancer and Friendships
We all have stories, often sad ones, about the impact of cancer on our friendships. I suspect that the stories are the same when someone experiences any kind of major life crisis: divorce or death of a spouse or child or financial ruin, but we are talking here about cancer. It is easy to say that, when a friend disappears or disappoints you, the issues are clearly hers, and that she can't deal with the fear of cancer. It is much harder to be understanding and forgiving when someone we have counted on is suddenly absent. On the other hand, there are inevitably people whom we didn't know well or would have not expected to be helpful who turn out to be remarkable supports. New close friends are often made through cancer.
This leave us, at some point, with the question about the failed relationships. Do we care enough to try to mend them? Can we get past the anger and hurt? Do we wish to make the attempt? This essay from WebMD is about this decision. The author, Heather Millar, tries to remind us of the value of old and close friendships and the truth that no one friend can be everything we need. We generally appreciate that we have different friends for different things. Some are great companions for trips or dinners out, others offer a kind listening ear, still others usually are glad to take on projects. Cancer seems different somehow, and we do expect all of our friends to be supportive. Chances are good that we would understand if someone said something like: "I am so sorry that I can't be more involved with you right now. You remember that my mother died of breast cancer last year, and it is all too raw. I will be loving you and doing what I can." What we can't understand is the silence.
If you do decide that a friendship is worth the effort and pain that it likely will take to resurrect it, then do try. You probably will have to make the first contact and be prepared to express your feelings. Pretending nothing has happened won't help. The only possible course to success involves some honest discussion that you will have to initiate. You start with: "I have missed you and been pretty hurt by your absence during these months of chemotherapy...." Then you hold your breath and your heart and hope your friend can respond.
Here is the start of this essay and then a link to read more:
This week, on a support group listserv, I read yet another sad story about relationships distorted by cancer. The writer is a breast cancer survivor. Though now approaching middle age, she remains close with a group of pals from high school. She can't understand why her friends never ask her about her disease, or why they were so absent when she was in active treatment. Now, five years after the initial crisis, she is finishing Tamoxifen, a drug that blocks her cells from using estrogen, a hormone that fuels many breast cancers.
The end of the Tamoxifen prescription is a big deal for most breast cancer patients: For most, it's the absolute end of treatment. There's joy in the sense of "graduating," but also terror about no longer "doing something" about the cancer. The writer lamented that her friends didn't understand what a milestone this was for her. She wondered about the quality of these friendships. We've all heard that everyone dies alone. Unfortunately, many of us feel like we are sick alone, too. If this weren't true,we wouldn't need support groups.
Why does cancer, or any serious illness, wreck so many relationships? Why do people who claim to love and treasure the person who is ill have such a hard time facing the illness?