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Cancer and Friendships

Posted 5/21/2015

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The impact of cancer on friendships can be shocking. A cancer diagnosis is a litmus test of relationships, and everyone has surprises. We generally assume that our friends will be supportive in a crisis, and this may or may not turn out to be true. If, in the beginning, you make a list of friends who will be helpful and others who will not, your list surely will not be accurate.  It also won’t include the people whom you barely know who will turn out to be faithful and important friends.

Everyone is afraid of cancer, and some people can’t manage their own fears in order to support you. It is very upsetting when a dear friend, perhaps someone you have known for decades, never calls after learning of your diagnosis. It is distressing when someone turns away after spotting you in the market—especially if you are wearing a wig or a hat on your bald head. It is terrible when an old friend suddenly stops your regular routines.  You don’t have to forgive their behaviors, but it is helpful to understand them and remind yourself that their absence is about them, not about you. Your choice is to decide whether the friendship is important enough to save. If so, you likely will have to make the effort to reach out and say something like this: “I have missed you. Can we meet for coffee or lunch?” At that meeting, try hard not to be angry, but do express your disappointment.  Blame will not help, but it is possible that your honesty and vulnerability will enable your friend to respond in kind. If not, you will have tried, and won’t later regret a lack of effort to save the friendship.
Fortunately, these vanishing folks are the exception. Most people will extend themselves to help you, and you likely will feel surrounded by warm affection.
Here are some suggestions:
• Identify one person in each of your social groups (school, church or temple, work place, etc.) who can be asked to share information about you. This point person can also be clear whether you want visits, emails, phone calls, or just warm thoughts.
• Consider setting up a website to share information with all your friends and to organize needed help. Examples include,/, and
• You do not have to share any information that you would prefer to keep private. It is fine to say: “I would rather not talk about that.”
• Think carefully about how and with whom you want to spend your time and energy. Some friends can quietly keep you company during a chemotherapy treatment while others may be better suited to a bringing you a coffee and a chocolate croissant every Tuesday morning or going out to a movie and light dinner when you want to have fun. 
• You are excused from writing thank you notes for the duration of your treatment. Saying “thank you” will suffice.

• Although it seems unfair that you should have to be the one to make the effort, this often is the case. Watch and listen in order to understand how much your friends can hear. They may want to hear about your treatments, but not be able to listen to your intense feelings.  You need different people for different conversations.
• Be open to new friends. No one “gets it” as well as another cancer patient. Talk to people in the waiting room or the infusion area. Consider joining a support group. Your cancer buddies may become some of your dearest friends


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  • Margaret said:
    6/4/2015 10:07 AM

    Thank you for this helfpul information! It can be hard to know how to be a good "cancer friend." Have you ever put together a list of tips, not for the patient, but for the friend? I would love to see it and will put it to good use.