The Friends You'll Make During Breast Cancer Treatment

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • It’s amazing how quickly we make friends when we’re going through cancer treatment.

     

    In normal times, friendship is a slow dance: recognition becomes acquaintance, then familiarity, and finally–maybe–it blossoms into something permanent.

     

    But making cancer friends is like teenage love: you fall into it, fast and hard.

    Cancer is a great social leveler. When you’re sitting next to two women with head scarves, there’s no telling how much they once spent for a haircut. The woman with the $200 precision cut and style looks exactly like the one who pays $20 for a “one size fits all” trim. Being sick looks remarkably the same on everyone.

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    And so, with none of the invisible force fields that usually separate rich, middle class, and poor, we open up to one another. We let our eyes meet. We smile. And then we talk.

    Oh, how we talk! Every woman has a story to tell, and cancer breaks through the boundaries. We run down the laundry list of comparison points: what type, what stage, how big was the tumor, any lymph nodes, lumpectomy or mastectomy, reconstruction or not. Chemo? Radiation? Have you had lymphedema?

     

    We find our common ground, the places we’ve walked together. And each touchpoint opens the floodgates: first one, then the other will detail the botched reconstruction, the secret radiation burn cure, what your new nipple looks like.

     

    And it’s only after all that–after you’ve established where you are physically–that you move into practical, then emotional territory. Do you work? Are you married? Any kids? How did your husband take the news? (This is part of the cancer shorthand we all learn; “the news” is news of your diagnosis, of course.) Are your parents alive? How did you tell them?

     

    You can become closer to a person within one hour, sitting in an easy chair in the chemo infusion suite, than you can in a month of regular, everyday interactions with someone in a normal setting. And that’s why it feels like falling in love–it happens so quickly.

     

    Making a cancer friend is like two men, strangers, spending the night in a foxhole together. By morning, they’re no longer strangers. With the shells raining all around them and death in the air, there’s no reason for them to hold back–life stories, emotions, anything. Once the sun rises they may never see each other again; but this one night has cemented in them a bond of friendship that won’t be forgotten.

    Cancer is a war involving body, mind, and soul. Like soldiers under fire, cancer veterans reveal the innermost reaches of their hearts to one another.

     

    We cancer patients are like war buddies; because the future is so uncertain, we don’t worry about things that don’t matter: social status, religion, politics. We live in the moment, just hoping to see the sun rise again tomorrow.

     

    These moments of connection are powerful, memorable and, ultimately, bittersweet. We part after treatment; we’ll probably never connect again.

     

  • But we never forget the searing, soaring friendship that we experienced, one lonely afternoon in the oncology waiting room.

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Published On: October 02, 2007