Friendships and Cancer


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Breast cancer has brought many friends into my life who now hold high places of honor. Others who I thought were my friends have dropped by the wayside, and I have let them go. It is hard to be abandoned by old friends, but do not take it personally if this happens to you. Many people do not want to get “too close” to cancer, because they will then be forced to consider it could happen to them.

Before I was diagnosed I was the picture of health: I ate whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat, chicken and fish, no fried foods, few fast foods, did water aerobics six days a week; I was a perfect size 8, got yearly checkups and mammograms without fail, stayed out of the sun, took vitamins and drank alcohol in moderation. One friend told me that if I, who did everything right, could get breast cancer it scared her to think about her odds of getting breast cancer. However, it did not scare her enough to get a mammogram or keep me as her friend—she did neither—because both would have forced her to take a closer look at breast cancer. She chose instead to live in the land of denial.

Another friend, an editor of a publication I used to write for, called and asked me how I was doing? “Terrific,” I said. Then just as though she had kicked me in the gut, she said, “Well, I wouldn’t brag about it if I were you. It has a way of coming back.” Thanks a lot, I thought. You really know how to support someone who is battling for their life. A few weeks later she called to ask me to write something for the next issue, and I said no. What my “no” really meant was, “No, I don’t want anything to do with you ever again.” Instead I politely said I had my hands full for the foreseeable future but thanks for thinking of me.

In fairness to friends and acquaintances, most people do not know what to say in the face of a serious illness. They do not know how to offer comfort or are afraid of saying the wrong thing. From the time I was diagnosed, I wanted people to understand I was the same person I was before breast cancer, and I still needed their friendship and to hear about their lives. So when friends called and asked how I was, I would say, “I’m great. How are you? What have you been up to?”

I think this answer accomplished two things: First, it relaxed the caller since they were expecting, perhaps fearing, to hear gory details of my surgeries, chemos, nausea, etc., so when they did not it made them not as afraid to call me again. Second, the act of turning the conversation away from myself was therapeutic for me. If only for the duration of our conversation this technique helped me focus on someone other than myself. I could do enough thinking about me when I was alone. And, as a result of not inundating them with details, they gave me positive feedback.

“You sound so upbeat,” or “You sound like you’re doing great,” they would say. Their comments helped me create a positive, self-reinforcing way of thinking about myself: If everyone thought I was doing great, therefore, I must be. And you know what? I was. I was much better than the breast cancer patients I knew who focused on themselves, worried about every little thing, feared the worst and expressed it to everyone they knew.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney were right: “I get by with a little help from my friends.”