Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work, emeritus

JULY 25, 2018

Prepare for Surprises

Joan Walsh Anglund’s classic book is titled A Friend is Someone who Likes You. This seems like a pretty basic definition of the word, but we all, unfortunately, learn that friendships and cancer are sometimes not a good mix.

When I meet with someone who is newly diagnosed, I often suggest that they make a list of people on whom they can depend and those whom they expect will not be so helpful. Then I tell them to put that list away for a year and to be prepared for surprises. Inevitably, there will be movement between the two lists, and there will also be new people who become very dear through this experience. Those new people may be neighbors or colleagues whom we barely know, people whom we meet at the Cancer Center or a support group, or someone who is a random encounter.

The dependable friends and the new ones are treasures in the world. It is the others, those who vanish, who hurt us. It is especially painful when they are seemingly close and old friends or even relatives. I am no longer surprised by the stories, but it is pretty shocking to learn of a college roommate or childhood friend or a sibling who maybe calls once and then disappears. Of course we understand that this bad behavior is due to their own issues, but that does not make it any easier. Many tears have been shed about lost relationships.

I don’t have any suggestions about how to prevent these experiences; I don’t think that is possible. I do have some thoughts about what to do later. During active cancer treatment, you just don’t have the physical or emotional energy to focus on these hurts. Try to put them aside until a later time when you can think a bit more clearly about your response.

When you do, the first question is: Is this relationship worth trying to save? It may not be. We know that, through a long life, friends come and go. Some are convenient friends when we live next door or work together or have children in the same class. As time passes, those situations change, and those people often fade away painlessly. But what about the others? The people whom you believed would be with you always deserve more thought. Think long and carefully because you likely will be the one who has to reach out. When you do, you will be inviting the possibility of another hurt.

If you decide to make a phone call or write a note (and a real in-the-mail note carries much more significance than an email), keep it simple. Lead with something like: I have missed you. Your friend knows perfectly well that she has disappeared during a very tough time, and you have no obligation to make it easy for her. If you feel that the connection is valuable and you want to try to save it, you will need to understand what happened, and you will need to find an authentic way to forgive. You likely will hear some bumbling explanation about I didn’t know what to say or So much time passed that I was embarrassed to call you. Just listen. And, when you are ready, tell her how you felt. I have heard stories of many such conversations, and, honestly, they don’t always go well.

Whether or not you are able to repair some of these damaged connections, remember also to hold tightly to the friends who were with you. Cancer reminds us what is most important in life, and the answer is always The People.

Please share your stories of friendships here: