The moment you learn you have cancer, your life changes, and so do the relationships you’ve formed with those around you — especially your friends.
Of all the things that happened to me during my cancer experience, the most surprising involved one of my good friends.
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 had a high-powered job, and she lived far enough away that I wouldn’t ordinarily see her on a daily basis anyway.
But we ran in the same circles, and with the way personal news spreads among women, I was sure there was no way she didn’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 her. 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.
Cancer can change your relationships
Have you had this experience? Cancer is a jolt to all your relationships, especially those with friends. Hopefully, your family stands by you — that’s what normal families do. As for your friends, they may rally around you, 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 at the time, 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.
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.
Rekindling lost friendship
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 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.
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PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.