• Keeping Friends

Friendship: In Sickness and In Health

Published: October 9, 2012 | Last Updated: October 11, 2021 By | 20 Replies Continue Reading

While we all hope our friends will always be there when we need them, in sickness and in health, that isn’t always possible.


Dear Dr. Levine,

I was close friends with a woman for several years. Six months ago, she abruptly ended the friendship. Two months prior to the end of the friendship, I was going through cancer radiation treatments and could not devote the time and energy to her that she seemed to need to feel satisfied with the friendship.

A few weeks before my treatment began, she suddenly claimed she was having severe, recurrent flashbacks/memories of an abusive period in her childhood. I tried my best to be patient with her whenever she wished to discuss her psychological state, but it was very difficult for me to be attentive because of my own physical condition.

At one point, she asked me to stop talking to her about my cancer treatments because she was in a fragile emotional state and was not in a position to be supportive to me at all. I was very disappointed but continued to do what I could to try and support her anyway since her mental state did, in fact, seem to be deteriorating.

In the weeks that followed, our conversations become very strained. I felt I couldn’t talk to her about my treatment, and whenever I tried to talk with her about what she was going through, she didn’t seem to want to discuss it.

Our last conversation was very upsetting. She told me that it was impossible for me to understand her severe emotional upset in any way and that I might as well not even try.

Additionally, she told me that I was ‘”lucky’ to have cancer since once my treatments were over, I could heal and move on but her abusive memories were something that no time could ever heal. I was deeply offended by her remarks and when I attempted to discuss those feelings with her, she told me I was self-absorbed, hung up the phone, and cut off contact with me, except for a single text she wrote saying that the way I spoke to her when I was frustrated about my treatments and/or my life reminded her of a past abuser and caused her to have even more negative flashbacks.

Since that time, I have heard through our mutual friends that she thought I was very selfish and cruel for expecting her to be supportive while I was going through treatments because she herself was so sick.

I confess I am not sure what to think about it. The relationship is so strained that we have not even been able to say hello to one another in public. I have considered writing to her or calling her to gain closure, or as a gesture of goodwill but I do not want to open any old wounds unnecessarily if the friendship is not worth saving.

What are the boundaries when both friends are struggling and have nothing to give to one another? Isn’t friendship supposed to be in sickness and in health? Is it best to just move on from this? Were my expectations in fact too high? Were hers? I would genuinely appreciate any advice you could give me on the subject.

Thanks,  Sheryl


Dear Sheryl,

A diagnosis of a serious or life-threatening illness is likely to make anyone feel vulnerable and it’s normal to turn to others for support. Surely, your diagnosis and treatment must have been a very challenging period in your life.

Your friend seems to have been dealing with some serious emotional problems at the same time as you were struggling to cope with your own illness and its treatment. It had to be disappointing that your friend was emotionally unavailable, and couldn’t be more empathetic and supportive when you needed her. Her comments comparing her illness to yours and telling you that you were “lucky” were very insensitive but it sounds like she was under terrible stress.

The timing of all of this was unfortunate in terms of your inability to be there for each other. If you weren’t experiencing health problems, you may have been more patient and understanding of your friend. Conversely, if your friend wasn’t experiencing traumatic flashbacks, she may have been more understanding and supportive of you.

Since this friendship was a meaningful one to you before this disappointment, my suggestion would be to send your friend a short note. Say something like, “I’m so sorry we were unable to be there for each other but I realize we were both experiencing enormous stress and turmoil in our lives. I’m feeling stronger now and I hope you are feeling better, too. Our friendship has meant a lot to me in the past and I hope that we will be able to reconnect in the future.”

This will give you some sense of closure because you will be doing the right thing in terms of being supportive of someone you care about. You will have also conveyed your disappointment about the past—yet you’ll be leaving the door open in case your friend is able to think about what happened more clearly now as you do. Even if she doesn’t respond in kind, it will allow you to greet her cordially, having your feelings out in the open, and this should also allow you to feel more comfortable among mutual friends.

I hope your recovery is progressing nicely and wish you the best of health.

Warm regards, Irene

Here are a few prior posts on this blog about coping with cancer:

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Category: Dealing with friends with health and/or emotional problems

Comments (20)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    It sounds like closure really would help for Sheryl. I’m interested in she followed your advice too.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know. I understand someone having psychological issues…but the timing is very suspect to me. If I were Sheryl, I would not be able to get back together with this friend, especially after a statement like being “lucky” to have cancer. This ” friend” sounds like the kind of person who thinks she is the only one who deserves to be upset about her life, and everyone else’s problems pale in comparison. Who needs that?? There are more supportive people around, willing to give of themselves despite their situation and past.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I can speak from personal experience. I’ve had many friends with breast cancer from support groups and from going to conferences. I’ve lost 5 friends who didn’t survive the cancer. One of my close friends distanced herself from me when I got sick. She told me it brought up too many issues from her mother’s death from breast cancer 5 years before. I understood and would have never considered expecting more from her or asking her to overlook her issues to concentrate on me. I appreciated her honesty, even though I missed her. Others distanced themselves, only one other was upfront with me (she didn’t respect my treatment choices and thought I was allowing a male surgeon to hack away my breasts–believe me I wouldn’t have wanted her around with that attitude). I had other acquaintances turn into friends and met some new ones that could relate because they were on similar paths.
    I’m not trying to sound defensive, because I can understand how not having experienced either PTSD or cancer you might see things differently. The people I appreciated the most during surgery and chemo are the ones who treated me the same as they did before my dx. I hated when people looked at me with sad you’ve-got-cancer eyes or treated me like a victim in need of treatment with kid gloves. Those people made me feel sicker.
    People who have cancer and just like people who don’t have cancer, some are nice, some aren’t, some are needy, some are controlling, some are bitchy, some are sweet. Very few that I’ve encountered want to be treated like sick people and even fewer of us want to be called brave for having a disease and accepting treatment. Before I had cancer I thought otherwise–like cancer survivors were a holy bunch who deserved life long adoration and kudos.

  4. Anonymous says:

    It’s frustrating when people assume psychological issues are less worthy of understanding as physical ones. I’ve had PTSD and cancer. Different things on life can trigger even dormant PTSD and I think not listening to a friend who is open enough to share her turmoil is even more selfish than distancing oneself from a sick friend. It’s about boundaries, accepting others and setting your own and respecting that in good faith. Why be an unnecessary victim and assume rejection or be angry that a person can’t always be exactly what we need.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I have to agree with some of the other commenters to just move on. It does sound to me as if this person suddenly had flashbacks to grab some of the attention her friend was getting for having cancer. So sad, but I don’t think the relationship is worth pursuing.

  6. Anonymous says:

    It think its pretty ironic that Sheyrl’s ‘friend’ had these sudden flashbacks exactly at the same time she was going through treatment. Sounds like a case of ‘I need chronic attention’ to me. Sure mental health problems are a legitimate medical issue, but the timing of this is just too classic. Who tells a cancer victim that they are ‘lucky’? That isn’t being open, That’s being unbelievably rude.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Wow. I think only someone with the mindset of a personality disorder could try to guilt a cancer survivor for wanting too much from someone with mental health issues. When it was really the other way around.

    You can be mentally ill and still be a decent person at heart. It doesn’t sound like Sheryl’s “friend” was.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I think that note is a good idea. I’m curious as to whether Sheryl took your advice and what the result was.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I wonder if this type of thing in varying degrees is more common than we hear. Sometimes it is an illness and a dire need that makes one see what is real in another. It can be sobering, to say the least.

  10. Anonymous says:

    With or without cancer, life is way too short to try to be close to someone like this. You do figure out, the older and smarter you get, that some people take much more than they give; she sounds like one of them.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I’m a breast cancer survivor and the same thing happened with me. Serious illness or other life trauma help us realize who our real friends are, and who aren’t able/willing to be the type of support that we need. If you’re like me, you’ve made other friends from people who were once just acquaintances from the people who stepped up to the to the plate.
    You were the one who changed the dynamics of the relationship by getting sick–of course not by choice, so I think being mad at her for changing the rules midgame isn’t a fair assessment of the quality of your friendship before you became sick.
    I’ve been abused, too, so I can see her point about cancer (hopefully) having an end to treatment, even though there will be emotionally changes. I think the fact that she can be so open about her reasons for pulling back is a gift (maybe one you’d rather return).
    Because her problems are mental and not physical, doesn’t make them any less because people who have been abused to kill themselves or engage in other self-destructive behaviors as a means of coping.
    Sometimes friendships don’t last forever, especially when goals change. She wouldn’t be healthy if she sacrificed her own mental health to be what you need, and would you really want to ask that from her?

  12. Anonymous says:

    This woman (“friend”) sounds like she herself was abusive to Sheryl. I would not want to be in touch with her. After the toxicity of cancer it is important to surround yourself with healthy people!

  13. Anonymous says:

    I agree with what this poster said. I don’t think it is a bad idea to send the letter if you feel you should do it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if somehow this friend ended up taking it the wrong way. I had a friendship end many months ago for reasons I still don’t understand. Around the end of our friendship, my ex-friend would get angry at me no matter what I did or said. I found out she had a death in the family from someone else, and when I tried to be nice and say something in an email she got mad and took it completely wrong. (I know email isn’t the ideal way to communicate, but at the time had stopped speaking to me.) Same thing happened when I contacted her about an illness in another family member. There are countless other examples, but I finally realized it didn’t matter what I said or did. She had made up her mind about me and she was looking to justify her actions and her opinion about me. I decided it was best for me to walk away from the friendship. I can be cordial when I see her, but otherwise I don’t have any more contact with her. I hope all goes well with your cancer recovery!

  14. Anonymous says:

    Hi there…I think the best thing would be to move on at this point…as a prior poster noted, if you friend is unwilling to get help , then things will only end up going back to how they were before…I know this firsthand myself. My ex-BFF had mentioned in the past a few times that she thought she had BPD. She had all the tell tale signs…head games,manipulative, often gave me the silent treatment and deflected blame away from her and put it on me….I put up with this for a long time. We did have a falling out awhile back…after many months, I attempted to reach out to her, expressed that I wanted things to be better for us, that we had been good friends and deserved this, etc….all this fell on deaf ears….no response at all. My point….I knew then that it was over and I was done trying. I wasn’t going to chase her or continue to be the target of her “issues”…all I get is hurt from her and I wasn’t going to give her anymore opportunities to rebuff me or hurt me….you need to take care of you and make sure you are ok. I would rather have no friends the a friend that made me feel bad about myself, made me feel to blame for their problems. You have been through so much an deserve only good things and positive people in your life!

  15. Anonymous says:

    This sounds like something I went through with another “friend”. And it was a few years after my own cancer diagnosis.

    Sheryl, I think it’s best if you move on and just put it past you. What will happen is that you will move past the cancer treatment (although I acknowledge that you won’t be the same person as you were before cancer …… nobody is….. starting with the regular CT scans and then just the psychological change).

    But you will move on past the cancer but she will be, and will always be, stuck in the past with her problem – she might not even be doing anything for herself like seeking treatment etc. She will continue to want to be the “victim” and be wanting things from you, and not trying to make it a two-way friendship.

    Know what I mean?

    I think it’s best to move on and concentrate on your other friends.

    Good luck 🙂 🙂

  16. Anonymous says:

    Will this woman ever be able to equally participate in a friendship with you? Even when you were dealing with a life-threatening illness, she was unable to put her own fragility in perspective. While the wounds of abuse are very real, cancer is often a life or death situation.

    It does not sound to me as though your expectations were too high because it appears you were not allowed to have any expectations.

    You are a very generous person to be thinking of this woman after what you were subjected to while undergoing treatment. You must have truly valued her as a friend. The question is, will she be able to give back if the two of you were to attempt reconnection? Could you endure what you experienced before? Because you should not be expected to and you need to maintain your own well-being.

    I am not a big fan of the word closure, because I’m not sure it really exists, but if sending her a letter saying that you wish you had both been in better places at the time would make you feel better I suppose you could do that. But I would not be surprised to learn that you are accused of yet another atrocity.

    I would not say you had nothing to give one another, because it seems as though you did try, in spite of what you were experiencing.

    I hope your recovery continues to go well and I hope your friend is able to achieve some emotional recovery of her own. However, it has been my experience that the symptoms you’re describing take several years of intensive (sometimes in-patient) therapy. This is not to say that persons with your friend’s illness aren’t deserving of friends, but one unrealistic expectation they sometimes have is that every friend function in a mental health worker capacity. There is a time to give and a time to take, but you can’t be the one doing all the giving.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I believe, from the tone of the letter, that Sheryl’s friend was irritating Sheryl no end. I don’t see much hope for the relationship, but if Sheryl wants to have closure your suggestions are right on.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I wonder how supportive this person truly was in the past? Is this just an extreme version of previous behaviour where she can’t stand not to be the centre of attention? Either way, it is a difficult situation.

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