Cancer wrecks your body, even some friendships

January 22, 2014

Much as cancer can cause skin to lose its suppleness, hair its sheen, and the body its vigor, it can also wreck some friendships.

Since one out of three people will get cancer during their lifetimes, almost everyone will be touched by this dreaded disease, either directly or indirectly. We may surprise ourselves by how we deal with it, either as a victim or as the friend of a victim.

My experience has come as a victim of stage 4 lung cancer. I am the person who friends gather around and offer support. I’ve also felt the sting of people recoiling, averting their eyes, pretending they don’t see me in the grocery store aisle. 

One cancer patient wrote an article about assigning “stages” to her friendships, much like doctors designate stages of cancer. 

Stage 1 are the best of friends: the ones who listen when you need to talk and protect you from negativity. They are the ones who offer to help you with unpleasant tasks, like cleaning out your basement. These are friends whose mere presence cheers you up and gives you hope. They make you feel loved.

The other end of the spectrum is stage 4 — the lousy friend who never calls. A stage 1 friend told me that another friend, a stage 4 friend, had called to ask about me. She spread the news to others, but never bothered to call me. She sent a letter to me nine months later saying that she had been thinking about me. The letter may have alleviated her guilt, but it did nothing for me. I already felt the discomfort of being the subject of gossip. 

Of course, most people fall somewhere in between the extremes. Many people I know have surprised me, and most of the surprises have been good. There have been close friends who grew closer and more precious to me after my diagnosis.

Friends are so important. I am blessed to have many of what I would call stage 1 friends, plus two sisters who easily fit into the category and a husband of 17 years who’s my very best friend. I am sometimes in awe of the love I get and I wonder if deserve it all. I’m also thankful I can count on one hand the number of stage 4 friends I have, though my experiences with them still have been hurtful. 

I asked Leslie Wolowitz, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist, what motivates stage 4 friends. She says their behavior is not uncommon.

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, it generates conflicted feelings that they want to avoid, so they don’t reach out. Even bumping into the friend in a neutral setting like a grocery store or a party can cause these people to feel awkward or discomforted.

“There’s a primitive fear of sickness and death and a feeling that ‘this could happen to me,’” Wolowitz says. Seeing the sick friend creates a conflict that some people do not want to confront. 

“There’s a sense that through achievement and hard work, we can buy youth and health and avoid sickness and death. This is especially true for the middle and upper classes. So when a friend gets sick, it’s just a raw reminder that we’re all in the same boat. We’re mortals and vulnerable,” Wolowitz says.

There is also the fear of saying the wrong thing. I certainly understand that. It has kept me from expressing what I felt to friends going through tough times. I realize now that it’s perfectly fine to say something along the lines of, “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know that I care about you and want to be there for you if you need anything.”

Some people with whom I’ve had only a casual friendship have tried very hard to be helpful, offering to run errands for me or dropping off meals. Others, I can tell, want to be helpful but don’t know what to say, so they avoid face-to-face contact by dropping a condolence card in the mail. The cards typically say I’m welcome to call if I need anything. I never have and probably won’t. 

Others are so uncomfortable with my situation that it’s difficult to hold a normal conversation. There’s one — someone I’ve known for many years — who’s so fearful at the thought of death it seems that she’s uncomfortable just speaking with me. I usually end up trying to cheer her up and reassure her that I’m mostly OK when we talk on the telephone. This can feel like a burden. As a result, we don’t talk often. 

Wolowitz told me I should examine my own expectations because they are often heightened “in times of high stakes or high need.”  People will often try to work out who in their lives is helpful and who is hurtful, so that we know who we can depend on. 

“People’s dependency issues are complex,” she says, “Most of us learn to be ‘anti-dependent’,” Wolowitz says. In other words, we can do it ourselves.  

She suggested I try to provide guidance to my friends about how they might be able to help, and to inform them when my needs change. That seems like good advice, though I don’t know if I’ll follow it. I do understand that most people are kind and want to help. I also realize that it’s often up to me to just let them.  

The other  thing I’ve learned from cancer is that it’s not so usual to be disappointed by friends and there can be many reasons for it. But now, with greater insight, I can weed out mediocre relationships, leaving more time for the ones that really matter, so that they may grow and flourish. 

Follow me on Twitter   @DLSherman

One comment

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Great blog post again. It is sound advice to tell people what they can do for you, but I think most women feel uncomfortable doing so, even in the best of times. I’m glad you don’t have many stage 4 friends, what a waste to avoid someone like you, so full of wisdom and knowledge. Be well

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