• Keeping Friends

Another reason why cancer sucks~

February 1, 2011 | By | 18 Replies Continue Reading

QUESTION

Hi Irene,

I’ve been struggling with this problem for years, but it’s finally taking a toll on me. I’ve had cancer for over 18 years. I was diagnosed when I was 21 so I’ve essentially had it my entire adult life. I’ve learned to cope with it quite well and live a normal, healthy life despite having a chronic illness.

When I was first diagnosed and going through surgeries and treatment a lot of my friends vanished. It hurt a lot, but we were all very young and I know that most of my friends just didn’t have the maturity to deal with such a tough situation. I moved on, made new friends, but it still hurt a lot knowing I had so many fair weather friends.

Now I am 38. Most of the people in my life now know that I’ve had cancer, but they’ve never seen me sick so I suppose it’s hard for them to comprehend all that I went through. I recently had a recurrence and again, many friends are falling by the wayside. I don’t know how to cope with this anymore. I learned long ago that it was best to not talk about it too much and to exude a positive attitude. I’ve tried reassuring the people close to me that even though this is a set back, I’ve always responded well to treatment in the past so there’s no reason to think I won’t continue to do so. I am constantly reassuring my friends and family that everything will be okay, but even with all my attempts to comfort those around me, still I am getting the cold shoulder.

So today I am angry and hurt. My phone has not rung in four days. I’ve sent a couple emails to one best friend asking if she’d like to meet for coffee next week and I received no reply. This isolation is the absolute hardest part of this illness. I feel completely alone and unloved and I know I do not deserve to feel this way. I am getting involved in a support group again which is wonderful, but I miss my friends. I miss my regular life. I miss being able to call a friend knowing that she’s going to be excited to see me calling. Now I know she cringes and puts the phone to voice mail because it’s easier to avoid me rather than face reality.

None of these people knows how frightening it is knowing I’m truly alone in this. If I can’t count on my dearest friend to meet me for coffee then what the heck is going to happen if I’m too sick to drive myself to the hospital for treatment? Who’s going to take me home after having surgery? And heaven forbid I might want to have someone visit me when I’m having a bad day. I am at a complete loss.

I can deal with the medical side of cancer. Treatment and surgery are tough but I can take it. The isolation I feel from the people around me though is the most horrible thing I have had to deal with in all of this and it hurts more than anyone can possibly understand. I will persevere. I always do. But, I fear that emotionally, I may not recover so well. I would like to find a neutral way to let the people around me know how hurt I am without making them feel bad. I can’t think of a way to do this though. If I am upfront and tell them how much they’ve hurt me, it will only further drive them away. Is there anyway to resolve this and help strengthen my relationships with these people? Or should I cut my losses and try once again to make new friends and hope they don’t do the same thing? I just don’t want to be sad anymore.

Signed,
Pam

ANSWER

Hi Pam,

With improved treatments, more and more people are living with cancer, which is now viewed as a chronic illness. While it has to be terribly disappointing to have family and friends scatter and hide when you need them most, this type of reaction is common.

Unfortunately, many people are so frightened of illness and their own mortality that they wind up turning their backs when their support is most needed. They’re simply incapable of responding otherwise.

When you’re feeling vulnerable and need all the love you can get, this can be extremely unnerving. Although it has to feel very personal, try not to take it personally. It has more to do with the their own frailties and limitations than their feelings about you. You’ve come to terms with this illness over the course of many years; you have little choice but to let them deal with this on their own terms and timeline.

In the meantime, seek out the people around you who are more capable of being supportive even if it means your friendships are limited to a paltry few. Let them know how they can help and support you in concrete ways.

Remind your friends that your life isn’t defined by cancer alone. Perhaps, you can plan a fun event with a friend, maybe an overnight at a spa or casino, so she can see you in a different, more relaxed light. As you mention, support groups with people who have been there can be extremely important in your life right now.

I’m truly sorry about your recurrence and wish I had better answers. Perhaps your post will give others some food for thought and contribute to better understanding.

Warm regards,
Irene

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Category: KEEPING FRIENDS

Comments (18)

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  1. Mike says:

    Since my December 2012 cancer diagnosis, and May 2013 kidney removal surgery, I have discovered countless web pages dealing with cancer. And by far the most common issue for cancer patients is being abandoned by friends and family. This abandonment is so widespread that it is a far worse disease than the cancer itself! At least there are treatments for cancer! I have had a bitter taste of this abandonment myself. As I said, my surgery was in May of 2013 and the last time I heard from any “friend” was in June of 2013! Eleven months ago! I have never asked anything of any of them, yet they avoid me just the same. These are people I’ve known since high school, and I graduated high school in 1974. “Friendships” I have maintained for over 40 years! I’m concerned that if I cut my losses and let them go, that will mean over 40 years of my life was wasted! Hopefully I can someday view this as a learning experience instead of a waste, but for now I’m angry, hurt and frustrated. Having no family only makes the loss of friends even more profound. Now I’m alone. Thank goodness I haven’t needed help! (Yet!) I don’t believe in coincidence, so I find it very interesting that these “simultaneous abandonments” never occurred until cancer entered the picture! I can’t speak for every cancer patient on earth, but in my case I have noticed that the psychological aspects of a cancer diagnosis were never addressed. I was diagnosed 17 months ago, but it’s bothering me more now than it did then. Even though my cancer was removed, just the idea that it could happen again is an uncomfortable bit of baggage in the back of my mind. After the surgery I naively believed that this was the end of the story. No more cancer equals no more worries! But oh no, this was just the beginning. I will have to be monitored and tested for cancer the rest of my life. My cancer was discovered after a routine CT scan, so I am now hesitant to have any kind of tests performed. CT, MRI, X-Ray, Ultrasound, all of them! I got off fairly easy this time around; no chemo, no radiation, but what about next time?

    • Irene says:

      Hi Mike,

      I can understand how disappointing it must have been to see friends turn in the opposite direction after your diagnosis. Perhaps they were at a loss of what to say or do. If you have the energy, you might try to give them (and yourself) another chance.

      You are correct that too often, the psychological aspects of a cancer diagnosis aren’t addressed. Since you still feel troubled, it could be worthwhile to find out whether there are any support groups, either associated with the facility where you had your surgery or with local organizations, in your community. It’s always helpful to speak to other survivors and learn about the strategies they used to cope and move forward. Having no family makes your journey even rougher and friendships more important.

      You are so fortunate that your cancer was caught early enough and with monitoring I hope you can remain healthy.

      Warm regards, Irene

    • amy feld says:

      I lost some friends when I was diagnosed with cancer too. At first I was really hurt and of course I felt abandoned. One of my close friends lost her mother to cancer several years before and she couldn’t deal. Another disagreed with my choice of aggressive treatment and said I was allowing a male (surgeon) to mutilate my body. I thought they should suck it up, since I was the one who was sick.
      But then I went through treatment (also without family) and got some perspective. Thirteen years out from cancer I’ve learned that people are sometimes limited in what they can give to a relationship–it doesn’t mean they don’t care or that they’re bad people or that I wasn’t important enough–just that they couldn’t be who I needed at the time.
      In the years since, I’ve found a wonderful group of cancer survivors who I met online–but we get together in person a few times a year and some live in my area. It’s nice because we get the complexities of cancer and the aftermath that others don’t get.
      My best advice to you is to focus on gratitude–yeah the aftermath if cancer is a pain in the butt, but it’s way better than not surviving etc.
      It gets easier the further you’re out from diagnosis.
      Talk to your oncologist about support groups or whether s/he’s affiliated with an oncology social worker if you’re having difficulty. They can be a wonderful resource. The American cancer society also offers services on and offline.
      For me after a recurrence scare that knocked me into 6 weeks of anxiety, I decided I will never do that to myself again. Whatever happens in my body happens whether or not I freak out and obsess. I’m happier not obsessing. If my cancer comes back, I will never say, “too bad I didn’t spend more time worrying about it.”
      I hope you have continued health and healing.

  2. caraK says:

    Losing friends during this time is the ugliest of experiences, so please, let us not sugar-coat it, and let us never blame ourselves. Can we stop ourselves from that miserable feeling we need to somehow work to recapture these false friends? We need to stop this wishful thinking. I believe once we truly accept the fact these people were never true friends, or never true family, and, as such, the thought of them being in our lives again is actually scary, well once we honestly admit this fact to ourselves, well then we will have peace and enjoy moving on to new TRULY LOVING people. The disease is NOT our fault, and losing friends/family due to our medical diagnosis is NOT our fault. I’m going thru this and realize the many friends and family who turned their backs on me ate NOT the loving people i truly thought they were, but they themselves provef they are NOT who i need & want in my life. Yet i AM hurt,and hope &pray & believe God will heal me from this hurt. I am upset that i was in relationships with unloving self-centered people, but it is NOT my fault that inside these people are the selfish way way they are. They themselves chose to be this way. They are self-concerned, no more. We will waste our precious time trying to “win them back”. The hard part for me is accepting these people are “fairweather friends only” and that i really don’t want fairweather friends in my life. This is hard when you’re needing to save your life at the same time!!!!!!! I want you all to know that i am willing to admit the ugly uncomfortable mortifying truth that friends and family have turned their backs on me, and i will not makes excuses for them and, i announce that i refuse to try and understand them psychologically because what they did is plain wrong. We here need to raise our expectations and expect every adult to treat us & all others with love. I believe once i am fully able to do this, the deep hurt will fade, and i will here on out be chosing friends who are enthusiastic about helping others….. I saw this good post elsewhere online today: “[Look forward to] the amazing people you will now meet. We are champions; we have done what most people [cannot even imagine. Never let anyone especially] negative people take away what we have achieved.”

  3. Juliahh says:

    I’m so sorry you’re going through this and I can totally relate. I’m going through the same right now and have lost several friends, including my best friend of 18 years. Never, in a million years, did I think my friend would abandon me when my health deteriorated. I was there with her through her bout with a serious illness and most recently spent the past 2 years supporting her through her divorce. Now that I’m sick, homebound and need support, she’s completely abandoned me. When I told her I had cancer, there was no response. When I told her I was getting a feeding tube, her reply was “well, you never really like to eat much anyhow”. I’d rather be alone than have friends like that. Fortunately, I’ve made new friends who treat me with dignity and respect. One day these “friends who can’t cope” are going to be in the position where they understand what it feels like to be sick and isolated.

  4. Cancer Survivor says:

    Pam,
    I’m 18 months out from having BRCA+ breast cancer and I’ve learned that “the plague” as you call it is that you remind people that they can get cancer too, and they don’t like it. I’ve just sent my “so-called” best friend packing after taking a year of rude, nasty behavior (why don’t I call her more? Gee, I’m the one in the ER, who can’t breathe).

    It’s a brutal reality that we’re faced with that people without cancer don’t understand. It’s not your job to take care of them. They aren’t the friends you thought they would be. It’s crushing. It’s another loss. But you have to concentrate on you right now – your health and getting better. You can’t fix people’s perceptions of having cancer – it’s not a death sentence. But you can set boundaries and not let people hurt you over and over.

    Let em go. You’ll feel better and be open to new experiences.

    Hang in there and the best with treatment and surviving. You’ll do great!
    M

  5. Lori Lee says:

    I’M Sorry To Hear About Anybody Who Is Going Through Cancer, I Can’t Imagine What That’s Like. Yet I’ve Seen Peoples Who Have Lived With It, It Runs In My Family On My Mamas Side. Maybe It’s True That Some Peoples Can’t Sympathize With It Because They Don’t Have Any Experince, So They’ll Just Try To Avoid The Topic If They Can. Don’t Feel Too Bad Just Give Them Your Condolences Instead, Because One Day It Could Be Them. As The Scriptures says It’s Better To Be In The House Of Mourning Because We Can Reflect On Ourselves When Our Time Will Be “NEXT”. Some Peoples Are Just [Nobody] To Even Think About. I Wish You Well!!

  6. Anonymous says:

    And thank you for your good wishes for my friend. I think he was hesitant to discuss his illness with me as we hadn’t talked for many years but I could tell from his tone and demeanor that he just wanted to be treated like I had always treated him–to joke around and talk about shared interests like film, music and travel. The doctors were not able to remove the entire tumor because of its location so he’ll have some challenges ahead but I think what keeps him strong is dwelling in the things that make his life good. When I come across something that I think might help him maintain his strength and body mass I pass it along because I’m very much interested in integrative and holistic medicine and healthy nutrition, but mostly we don’t talk about his illness. Like you he just wants to live his life and he doesn’t want people to freak because he happens to have pulled a short straw this time around. I know but for the grace of god….

    Some people just aren’t comfortable with emotional issues of any kind and they would probably score low on emotional intelligence or empathy if actually tested. They may have their own demons or problems we don’t know about, they may be self-absorbed or they may have very superficial, one-sided beliefs about friendship. As others here have said, don’t expend your precious energy trying to convert them into more giving or emotionally responsive people.

    I don’t know where you live but I’ve heard of yoga classes that are specially designed for people recovering from illness. That may be a good mix for you when you have the strength as it provides an opportunity to participate in an emotionally and physically healing activity with people who understand what you are experiencing. Hang in there, all the best wishes for good times ahead!

  7. Anonymous says:

    I’m so sorry my guess that they are “busy” was wrong, Pam. You are right that people make time for what they want to do. I’ve been in your shoes, actually, but the illness I have is not cancer. But what you have described about your friends’ absenteeism is so familiar, I had to write. I listen to my friends’ problems all the time and don’t think twice about it. So it is shocking to me that they don’t want to reciprocate. I am happy to hear about your sister being giving of her time. Bless her! I wish you all the best, Pam, from the bottom of my heart, and I hope the new support group turns out to have some good souls in it.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I hope you’re friend is doing well! It truly is a tough life lesson to learn when you’re trying to navigate your way through a medical crisis.

    You’re right about people who have walked the walk being able to help others facing a crisis. It makes me wonder how I would respond to others in a situation like mine had I not faced all I have.

    Thank you for your kind response and I wish your friend all the best!

  9. Anonymous says:

    I get what you’re saying, but I actually don’t need anything right now other than what I needed before I had a recurrence. I only need(at this moment) to not be treated like I have the plague. My phone doesn’t ring, my emails go unanswered…it’s isolating. I know people get busy. I do too! I work full time, I travel into the city most weeks for doctor’s visits. At the end of the day, we make time for the things that are important to us. No matter how busy we are. And, no one can be so busy that they’re not able to return phone calls or emails. We’re not talking a few days. This has been since the beginning of December. My sister has five kids (god bless her!) and we speak almost every day. We make the time to do this because we love each other. She’ll call me while she’s driving to pick up the kids from school, or taking one of them to basketball practice. Even if she only has 5 minutes to spare, she finds the time. I just wish that at least my dearest friend would have found 5-10 minutes during the last 7 wks to return my calls. We used to go to the movies 2-3 times a month. Coffee just as often. And we’d talk on the phone once or twice a week. Now, nothing. That’s not busy. It’s avoidance. I know I need to accept it for what it is, but it’s hard. Because I miss her and my other friends, it’s hard.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Jeepers. If you’re dealing with cancer and your “friends” are backing away, don’t try to win them over by organizing a nice outing for them. Focus on your healing and forget these fair-weather flakes. If they come sniffing around once you are better, call them out on their lack of support. Seriously, don’t let them off the hook.

    Good luck with your treatment 🙂

  11. Anonymous says:

    Pam, is it possible your friends don’t know what you need right now? Is it possible they have gone MIA not because they are avoiding you but because coincidentally they are busy right now–AND DON’T KNOW that you could use a friend? Did any of them make the “Let me know if I can do anything” comment when you told them the cancer had returned? Think about it. Maybe you have been so successful in conveying that you don’t “need” them that they truly don’t know that you do. I have reread your post twice now and I think every single thing you said in your first post was valid and not asking too much. If you think you haven’t actually told your close friends what you need, perhaps do so. Every single fear and “what if?” question that you pose is valid. I have to say I think it’s quite shocking for anyone to suggest that the onus is on YOU to not expect a simple human kindness like a freaking coffee date from your friends. As for the Barbara Ehrenreich book, it may or may not be your cup of tea. She talks about the “Let’s be positive!” movement from a personal perspective and from a larger, societal one. The personal perspective is the one that grabbed me. She felt she had a right to her feelings when she learned she had cancer; she said she felt she had the right to be angry at the situation in general and at the vague answers doctors gave her. She said she didn’t want to be festooned with pink ribbons. She went on cancer forums and was shunned by wanting to talk about her “real” feelings. She was told to stuff her feelings and “be positive!” So she wrote this book. From what you have posted, it sounds like you aren’t even wanting to discuss anger issues. It just sounds like you’d like to have someone around to be there for you, for coffee, for treatments, etc. Maybe a support group IS the right place after all to find truly empathetic, fearless new friends. One of my friends felt this way after finding a Gilda’s Place in her hometown (NYC) and participating there….. Best of luck to you. and hang in there, Pam.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Dear Pam,

    You sound like a wonderfully strong person who is taking the difficult cards that she was dealt and continuing to perk along with grace and courage. I second everything the Feb 2 poster said. I don’t think people should have to protect close friends from the realities of life. It is the rare person who at some point does not or will not have difficulties–whether emotional or physical. There are people who overburden others in inappropriate ways and expect friends and family to help them manage things that may require professional assistance. You don’t sound like one of those people–AT ALL! Of course it’s natural to want to talk about what is going on in your life because well–that is what is going on in your life! Obviously you don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself. While it’s true that your friends may be frightened or worried for you, what they experience emotionally is certainly many degrees below what you live with every day.

    I’m close to your age and I’ve come to discover that those who are the most supportive in difficult times have been touched by trauma or sadness themselves and understand how devastating it is to be abandoned when you need people the most.

    I recently reconnected with a friend from years ago who had a brain tumor removed at the beginning of last year. He spent three months in the hospital and two months in rehabilitation. He does not live close to family and during his hospital stay he only had two regular visitors–his wife and one friend. This is a great guy with a lot of friends and acquaintances whose company employed many people on a freelance basis for years. Not one of them showed up to see him when he was no longer able to give them work. His experience was that you really find out who your friends are when the chips are down.

    It’s very sad and frustrating to realize people’s limitations but I hope that you will continue to be yourself and to give new people a chance to get to know you. It might be a smaller percentage of the population that will hang in during tough times but those are the ones that you want in your life. I hope that you return to good health soon and that some kind souls are headed your way to support you through tough times and to rejoice with you during good times. All the best!

  13. Anonymous says:

    Thank you Irene. All that you’ve said is true and what I need to take away from this is that I can’t control the people around me anymore than I can control the cancer. What I can do is be sure that I continue to treat the people in my life with kindness and respect and hope (not expect) that they’ll do the same.

    And a big thank you to the two to posted such thoughtful and kind comments. I am definitely going to look up that book by Barbara Ehrenrich. I remember many years ago I was watching the Today Show and it happened to be the day that Katie Couric returned to work after her husband had passed away from cancer. She mentioned something to the effect of how moved she was by the courage people show by going out into the world everyday with a smile on their face when the world around them is falling apart. This really stuck with me because it’s something I’ve done a million times. Sometimes it would be wonderful to scream out to the world that I’m having a bad day and could use a hug!! But, of course that would not be well received 🙂 So I do what most people do. I put on my big girl pants and go about my day.

    I’m getting involved in a new support group. It was actually supposed to start today but it’s a snowpocalypse out there, so it’s been postponed. But, I hope to make some new friends and perhaps a new coffee partner!

    Thanks again everyone for taking the time out of your day to post such thoughtful responses. It is very much appreciated!

  14. Anonymous says:

    Pam, your post moved me. I’m so sorry you have to deal with people like this. You don’t sound remotely “negative” or offputting. Cancer is part of your life, so it’s nuts you aren’t allowed to mention it. If your friends have something difficult in their lives, I’m sure you don’t run away and hide from them. You are justified in wanting a friend to have coffee with sometimes. Even if you did want a friend to talk to sometimes to talk about “it,” the cancer, so what? That’s what people do: They talk about stuff in their lives.
    People talk about the bad stuff in their lives; sometimes that’s not a “pretty” conversation; too bad. That’s life. LIfe isn’t always “positive.” It is complex and multifaceted. I think it is just ridiculous to put the burden on YOU to accept your friends’ cowardice and selfishness or to expect YOU to run around and instantly make a whole new batch of friends. You haven’t said you want to chew someone’s ear off about your cancer. You just don’t want friends who are MIA in your life. I wish I knew you. I’d email you and go have coffee with you. I’d ask about your problems and the good things in your life. I’d tell you about mine. We could share a laugh, a tear, a smile. That’s what it’s all about. Thank you for sharing what must be a frustrating situation, to say the least. I say you have a right to vent about this, so I say go ahead and vent. The writer Barbara Ehrenrich wrote a funny and serious book about the damn “Positive!” movement called Bright Sided. It was born from her frustrations when she got cancer with people not allowing her to be real about her feelings as she coped with her illness. I don’t know if it will be of help. Good luck to you.

  15. Laura says:

    When I saw how absent some people were as both my parents had cancer, I felt the same way: if they really cared about me or my parents, they would call him/her.

    Alas, people are imperfect and avoid any reminder of pain. I focused on the people who did care and I forgave those who didn’t have the strength to do more. I learned that we cannot expect others to be there; we can only control our behavior. And I vowed that I wouldn’t be the same to others.

    Another thing: people are selfish to a degree, some more than others. Also, many people are at a loss on what to say or do. Or they feel they can’t deal with yet one more problem, especially one that they view as so large as a friend who has cancer. So a little empathy goes a long way to make this bearable. It is fact that many cancer survivors go through the pain of emotional abandonment.

    The crux of the issue is to accept what happens but learn to not have expectations of others and how they should behave. And I also learned to only rely on my family with whom we had obligations to take care of our parents so that no one had to step in to help. Can family substitute for friends?

    And planning a fun event like dinner, a spa event, etc. where it’s not related to your illness can also bring down the defenses of some of these people. Remember that women are caretakers in their families, and if most of your friends are in their late 30s to early 40s, they may be dealing with kids, husbands, and aged parents which is very stressful. Acknowledge that as well. And remember what kindnesses they have performed in the past for you; feelings of gratitude for past kind acts actually helps you feel better.

    Don’t discount the value of going to therapy to deal with this stress. It’s an added comfort to have a non-judgmental listener that won’t run away, especially someone that specializes in the emotional needs of cancer patients and survivors who have gone through emotional abandonment. And who knows: going to those sessions will help you feel better which in turn will let you feel that you can handle these feelings and not let them dominate you. Support groups can be good if they are geared to helping you get over this hurdle.

    I also found it very valuable to have a journal to “purge” myself of the negative thoughts before I interacted with anyone else so that I wouldn’t “burden”(the other person’s perspective) them with my feelings.

    You have my sincerest best wishes. You will get through this.

    Take care

    • Marley says:

      Kudos to the OP. Your writing made me feel less alone, as most of the other comments. As for this last comment, you have done just what so many others have said makes them feel bad or worse — discounted her feelings and said how forgiving and grateful she should be for the things those who have abandoned her have done before. What a lot of malarkey! It was long ago but really.. let the woman have HER feelings. And go to therapy! Wow why didn’t anyone else think of that. That is truly NOT an original, creative or empathetic suggestion. I get we all can get “BRIGHT SIDED” anywhere on the internet. Go and read Barbara Erehreich..now SHE is geniune and for real.

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