Emotional Impact

The Line in the Sand: Relationships and Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide February 01, 2013
  • “You have cancer.” None of us with breast cancer will ever forget hearing those words for the first time. At the moment you learn you have cancer, your life changes; and so do the relationships you’ve forged with all those around you – especially your friends.

     

    Of all the things that happened to me during my cancer experience, the most surprising involved one particular good friend.

     

    She disappeared.

     

    Not to the Caribbean for a week, or to start a new job in Arizona, or to move two towns away, closer to her sister.

     

    She disappeared out of my life – for good.

     

    At first, when I didn’t see or hear from her for a week or so after my diagnosis, I figured, well, she’s really busy. She has a high-powered job; she lives far enough away that I wouldn’t ordinarily see her on an everyday basis anyway.

     

    But we run in the same circles; and with the way personal news spreads among women, there’s no way she doesn’t know about my cancer. Surely I’ll hear from her soon, I thought. We’ll get together over coffee like we always do, laughing and trading stories.

     

    Only we never did. 

     

    One day, many months after my diagnosis, I saw her on a street corner. Out of the corner of my eye, I recognized a familiar coat, a certain fast-forward walk. It was she. I started to approach, but she quickly turned, crossed the street, and disappeared into the crowd. 

     

    Had she seen me? I’m certain she had; there was one fleeting moment when our eyes met. Did she acknowledge me? No. She turned and walked away.

     

    I wasn’t devastated; after so long, I knew she was avoiding me. But still, I was sad; sad that our once-thriving friendship had come to an end over something that wasn’t my fault, and something I couldn’t change: cancer.

     

    Have you had this experience? Cancer is a jolt to all your relationships, especially those with friends. While hopefully your family stands by you – that’s what normal families do – your friends may rally around; run away and hide; become distant; go from casual to close, or anything in between.

     

    You see, it’s not you that’s causing this sudden rewiring of the relationship network: it’s your disease. Your friends are giving you a rare inner glimpse of themselves. Who’s strong, capable, and optimistic? Who’s inwardly terrified about health issues? Who, as a young child, witnessed a grandmother’s painful death from breast cancer – and simply can’t chance going there again? 

     

    It’s sad to lose friends at a time when so much else is falling apart in your life. But on the flip side, cancer often brings new friends into your life.

     

    A woman I knew only peripherally, through our sons’ soccer team, sent me a wonderful, heartfelt email assuring me she’d do everything she could to see me through the crisis. And she did: she drove my son to games, sent flowers, baked me cookies, forwarded links to online sites she thought I’d find interesting. To this day, we share a special bond: one forged in adversity, and strengthened over time.

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    I also founded a casual breast cancer support group, one that meets monthly at a local restaurant for Friday afternoon drinks and laughter. The membership is constantly evolving; some women are constants, some get past their need for support. Some don’t want to be reminded of their cancer experience; some die. 

     

    But the constant is our shared cancer experience; the brush with death that inevitably changes your life – often for the better. My cancer friends are some of the nearest and dearest I’ll ever have.

     

    Many years after my treatment was over, I connected with my long-lost friend, the one who’d disappeared. We smiled at one another, and I saw the special softening in her eyes that you only experience with close friends. 

     

    After some catching up – jobs, husbands, kids – I took a deep breath, and asked her what had happened. Why had she left me when she heard I had cancer?

     

    She sighed. “I was scared. Scared of cancer. Scared you’d die. And I wasn’t strong enough to face down those fears,” she said. “So I walked away.”

     

    We hugged, and in that hug was the all the understanding, forgiveness, and love that true friends enjoy. 

     

    Sometimes friends are truly lost forever; but sometimes, it only feels like forever. Where the spark lingers, the fire remains – a fire that even cancer can’t extinguish.