When friendship and cancer don’t mix well

April 24th, 2011 § 30 comments

I have a friend — a good friend. We’ve known each other for a long time. When I was going through chemotherapy for breast cancer, however, she wasn’t my most sympathetic friend. One of her typical reactions when I would talk about the bottomless fear of cancer recurrence that was swallowing me up was, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to get used to it.”

This was not really stellar support in my book; I think she could have done better. In my mind, because a close family member of hers had cancer in her past, she was not a stranger to its emotional component. Perhaps if no one in her life had ever had cancer I might have been more forgiving. Her relative was doing well, still in remission many years after her initial diagnosis. I mentally wrestled with myself: was I being too hard on a friend? After all, my emotions were on a rollercoaster. Things that didn’t bother me one day would infuriate me the next. Was I actually trying to let her off the hook for not emotionally supporting me? Was I excusing bad behavior? If those who have no experience with cancer shy away from those who are ill and those who have experience do so as well (if the memories are too painful to think about) then who is left to support you when needed? I couldn’t decide if I was expecting too much; maybe I was setting my friend up for failure.

Many times on the phone with her during my months on chemo as she proceeded to rant about the problems in her life and the ways in which things were not going her way, I wanted to point out to her how my life was “doing me wrong” in a bigger way.

Looking back, I wanted to trump her woe.

Lately, she has been having some medical issues of her own. Nothing permanent or relatively serious, but annoying and painful. For the last few weeks she has had some pain that is “excruciating.” She’s abroad this week, on vacation with her family. The pain, I guess, was not enough to keep her from that. While she has complained about her pain, her appointments, her problems for the last few weeks, I’ve really been holding back. I’ve really had to fight the part of me that wants to once again lash out.

“I guess you will just have to deal with it,” I want to say just like she did to me.
“I guess it’s not bad enough you can’t take your European vacation,” I want to say in a childish retort.

I want to trump her pain.

I want to wave the cancer card. Cancer trumps her issue, chemo trumps the discomfort she’s got.

Four years ago I found it almost intolerable that she should complain to me about the small things that were bugging her… the traffic on the way to school dropoff and how “inconvenient” her child’s schedules were. The way she had to take her child to the doctor twice in one week to check out an ear infection. How repairmen were keeping her waiting.

These things get sympathy from me under normal circumstances; these are things that bug me in my own daily life.


But not then.

While I kept silent then,
put it behind me then,
this latest round of friendship injustice just makes that time raw once more.

It brings that anger back.

My fear is that every time my friend has a hard time from now on, I am going to again have that feeling that she let me down when I needed her. I thought I had moved past it, but I guess not.

I don’t want it to get in the way of our friendship.
Maybe someone who wasn’t there for me then can’t really be a friend now.
Maybe some lessons can’t be learned until you go through them for yourself.
Maybe she can’t know how her responses hurt me unless she experiences it for herself someday.

The thing is: I don’t wish it on her.
People have different strengths.
We shouldn’t expect a person to be good at everything–
To fulfill all of our needs, all the time.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
Maybe that’s true of forgiveness too.


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§ 30 Responses to When friendship and cancer don’t mix well"

  • Ann Gregory says:

    I struggled with a similar situation. I think most of us in the cancer club do. Some people will never understand how their behavior has negatively impacted us. The same people can’t understand why we aren’t more sympathetic to the fact that the store was out of nutella and life as they know it came crashing down because they had to drive 5 extra miles to find it. All this while you’re bald and nauseated and fighting for your life. Some people are just made that way. We have to decide to let it go or confront the issue. It’s not worth the personal pain.

    • Which have you done more often– let it go or confront?

    • Peggy Kimble says:

      I had a similar experience and came to realize that people who are self-absorbed will not change. These demanding people can never get enough attention and the tragedies and joys of friends are only another springboard for expressing their own situations. Although I was angry and hurt when my self-absorbed friend wasn’t supportive when I had breast cancer, I was amazed by the lovely demonstrations of caring from other people in my life. And I learned what friendship really means.

  • Teri says:

    Powerful, raw, moving, and honest post. I have often struggled with that question of how to let go and when to confront. If I confront, am I being honest with myself about my expectations and about what my friend/family member is really capable of (eg., are they up to the task of understanding the feelings I wish to share)? If I don’t confront, if I say, “I need to let this go,” am I being honest about my ability to do so? It is so hard tease how how to move forward, especially when wanting to move each day closer to our most authentic self.

  • Ann Gregory says:

    It’s depended on my relationship and experience with the person. More often than not, I’ve confronted them about the situation and how it made me feel. If it’s some one that I want to keep in my life, I have to do it, otherwise our relationship will suffer because I’m festering over it. If a person doesn’t know that they’ve upset you, they can’t take measures to resolve the situation. It doesn’t always end well and I tend to cry when I’m angry, so that compounds things. It’s the least I’d want some one to do were I the offending party. Some people still won’t get it. In the case of my own mother, I just let it go. We have a limited time to enjoy ourselves. No use letting others steal our joy.

  • rubybeets says:

    There is a time for everything including when to confront and when not too. Certainly confrontation takes a lot of energy and when you’re very ill you just don’t have it. People who are unable to give us what we need at times of emotional trauma take too much energy from us. They zap at the little emotional reserve we have. Wave them off. For those people we have to continue with in our lives ( eg relatives and or people who have been good friends) it usually means that later things will be quite superficial. Living through a trauma changes things in more ways than one. Relish the people who stick by you , who know how to embrace you in all things, the good and the bad times.

  • Greg says:

    What is interesting about many of your blogs, including this one, Lisa, is they cover many areas.

    For instance, with this one, the “normal” human being side and your professional, psychological side; or your medical or sociological, etc. sides in other blogs.

    Thank you for your informative, guiding, life building, entertaining learning sessions.

  • Greg says:

    Ann – I am glad you have people in your life with whom you can be honest, and they just don’t walk away. That is important in friendship. In being a people watcher, I wish more people could give and take honesty. I am not necessarily talking about malicious honesty, but I am talking about appropriate, sincere honesty, along the lines of, ‘I’m upset’ or ‘mad’ or ‘hurt’ or ‘happy’, etc.

  • Being at our weakest and most vulnerable gives those that we love a unique opportunity to show us, in a way, ‘what they’re really made of’. Some surprise us by how well they rise to the occasion. Some by how much they disappoint us.

    Logically, I understand that those who have (repeatedly) disappointed me in my hours of greatest need are probably not doing so because they don’t care. I understand that they are probably behaving they way they are due to some limitation or emotional fear that they do not want to face. Understanding that does *not* make me feel any better about their failure to give me what I need.

    If it still bothers you and you don’t want it to get in the way of your friendship, I suggest that you talk to her about it. If you can do so and feel like she *really* hears you/understands your point, you’ll be better able to decide how you want to move forward in the friendship – even if it means she’ll never be able to meet your expectations in situations where you need a friend who can bear witness to your pain and be fully present while doing so.

    I’ve had discussions like this with people I love. Some have profusely apologized, not realizing that ‘trying to keep things light’ felt to me like they were dismissing my suffering. Some have admitted they knew what they were doing, apologized and explained why they just couldn’t handle it. Some have told me that I was being self-centered and shouldn’t expect so much of others. While some of these responses are more desirable than others, each of them in their own way helped me find the closure I needed to move forward – even when that meant walking way from a friendship that no longer fit.

    Regardless of what you decide to do, I am deeply sorry that the lack of support and understanding from your friend added/adds to your burden.

    Hugs & love

  • Lisaps says:

    Lots of good comments.

    It is so hard when people disappoint us. Like you said it makes you second guess yourself – did you expect too much? Were you not clear about what you needed? I totally understand.

    Some people are just limited by whatever – I don’t think confrontation really helps or changes them. My experience is that you just have to recognize that a certain friend is not “the rock” or the emotional support & decide whether it’s a friendship you want to maintain on a shallower basis or let it become less important to you.

    Hang in there. Great, honest post.

  • Shari says:

    I had similar experiences when going through a divorce, not an illness. Some people just don’t know how to react to your situation and distance themselves, others put themselves in the forefront, giving the perception that they are not really in tune to YOUR needs and problems, but only their own. I think of it as the person who talks too much when they are nervous. They don’t know what to say, so the end up babbling. Only you know each of your personalities and your friendship and whether or not this is something that can’t be talked through. And obviously, you struggle with that decision to this day. I hope you find your answer and can come to terms with it. Good luck.

  • Kim says:

    Thank you for writing this. Unrelated to illness (thankfully) someone I respected and told me recently, “Well, you knew you were going to have to take your lumps.” That comment has left a heavy weight on my chest. It was so dismissive. And I don’t know that I will be able to let this person back into my life in any substantive way. Now I am trying to discern if “I am taking my lumps” or if “I am choosing to put myself in front of a swinging bat.” I have had people stand by me who I knew would be there, I have been happily surprised by others. And I am letting a lot of people go. Wow, I did a good job making this about me. You are clearly someone who works at being a good, solid friend to people. You are also honest. Sometimes the curt, petty response is the honest one.

  • L says:

    I had very similar issues with family members when my husband was struck down with a critical and disabling illness last year. One of them would come to the hospital every day and use us as her venting outlet for all her problems. I just didn’t have the strength to confront her back then, but I still find myself angry about it. It can be an anger that’s very hard to let go. I hope I manage to get past it one day.

  • Elizabeth says:

    Such an articulate post. As I mentioned to you on twitter, I am in awe of the way you are able to express such incredible emotion.
    I’ve been sick for 2yrs now, but not cancer, nowhere even close to it but I think the emotions are similiar. When you are experiencing something so life changing it is almost as if people need to “one up” you with their tales of woe. Instead of allowing the therapeutic-ness of “divesting” yourself of you grief, loss, fear, anger, etc, it is as if they cannot allow that precious spotlight to move from their day to day experiences, the mundaneness as it were of “healthy life”. I pity these people in some strange way for they are missing something that is so much bigger and so far beyond themselves.
    After a major falling out with my dearest friend of over 10yrs, I erroneously thought she would seek to support me through my illness. I thought she would come back to me after deciding that our friendship was not worth saving. I tried desperately to keep us from “breaking up”, but alas the relationship dissolved despite my efforts. When I was ill, I waited for her to call or email. She knew I was sick. No call came. I grieved again for her–how could she be so heartless?
    But now, my heart is closed to her. I wish her well, without me. The old saying goes, there’s a reason why some people from your past don’t make it to your future. The new “recovering” me understands that now.
    I hope for you that you can come to some kind of peaceful resolution. Peaceful in yourself so that you can either resurrect a semblance of friendship, or let it go and know that it is over and you can accept that.

  • Leslie Einhaus says:

    Great post! Really got me thinking! To me, it’s like a foreign language. Your family member(s), friend(s), co-workers either speak the language or not. They decide to engage, open up, risk themselves making a mistake (but all with good intentions). So many people, do not engage. They do the minimum b/c they are afraid. They may see themselves in you. They can’t articulate just what they want to say and what may come out will sound wrong or offensive somehow. So, instead they thread lightly, so lightly it’s barely detectable by us — the patient. You may have the fumbler who means well, but unintentionally throws out a blessing, message, or even advice that gets COMPLETELY lost in translation. Then, there are the “friends” who are blunt, who give the insulting comments! “Gosh, without really meaning to!” Then, there are the sunny-day complainers. She calls and bombards you before a trip to the hospital to tell you about her “horrid trip to the grocery store.” And you want to BLEEPTY-BEEP her! How dare she! Our role, as patients (I have a chronic condition called  neurofibromatosis) is to teach our friends (especially Miss Grocery Store Grump!) Perspective. Gratitude. Love. At the end of the day (figuratively-speaking), I believe that’s what I can teach my friends — everyone.  It may not happen automatically, but — like language — eventually it sinks in. 

  • Chris Alexander says:

    Your post and the comments are so powerful. They’ve made me think carefully about the kind of friend I’ve been. I have a new perspective on this, since I have recent experience with the “before” and “after” of a devastating event. I’ve wondered so often how lives around me have gone on as normal when my life has been turned upside down. I’m incredibly, unbelievably lucky for the people around me, who have a bottomless well of support.

    What I need to examine how I’ve reacted to the people in my life who’ve gone through such things. Have I shown the kind of support I should for people I love? I hope so, because I know now what it really means.

  • Honestly, Lisa, I don’t know how you have refrained yourself from saying “Well, I guess you’re just going to have to get used to it.” I don’t think I would have been able to. I’m not good at letting go, but A.A. teaches us not to hold on to resentments. Sometimes it feels good though – to word that hurt feeling over and relive it in your mind. But in the end, it’s always best to let it go. However, it doesn’t sound like you are going to be able to without talking to her about it. Then I think you’ll be able to decide whether or not she still belongs in your life.

  • Diana (@livyloorose) says:

    Such a great post!! I’ve been thinking about this since I read it yesterday. It angers me how selfish some people can be. It saddens me that you had to go through this; especially the part about ‘getting used to it’ (grrr) and I think you’re only human to have the feelings come back. You don’t want her to go through what you’ve been through, nobody would wish that. But I believe that you are entitled these feelings. But what do you do?

    I completely understand that everyone’s lives are different and what might be a huge problem to some, could pale in comparison to another person’s life. I get that it is all relative to what you’re going through. However, when someone is going through a life changing event, be it an illness, job loss, divorce, etc. I feel that is the time for a friend to step it up and be there. Is that asking too much, I just don’t think so.

    I could go on and on, but you’re right – maybe someone has to go through that to be able to realize that there are times when you need to set aside your problems to help your friend in need, and more importantly to recognize that your friend is in need. And for those who don’t recognize, you need to find a way to forgive, or realize your friendship is on a new and different level, or just not worth it. I don’t know about confronting – I’ve tried to do that and found that it is thrown back at me and somehow my fault. Very few people like to take ownership of hurting a friend so deeply at such difficult time in their friend’s life. You have hit on a subject that I have been dealing with for a while, and to me there just doesn’t seem to be an easy answer.

  • Its been my personal experience that when someone responds that way its because they are incapable of being emotionally available…its like ‘your’ pain makes ‘them’ so uncomfortable that they cannot deal ~as if emotionally handicap.

    A friend once told me, when I was going through a very difficult time, in my life; I needed emotional support from someone that was not giving me the support I needed/wanted…It was suggested that “I not go to the hardware store for bread”.

    This friend you speak of may be that hardware store…You deserve a friend ~a friend is someone that you can talk to even about the way you’re feeling right now at this very moment.

    Wishing you peace and comfort.

  • Marsi White says:

    Lisa, I struggle with the same thing. We all have our “stuff”. Mine just happens to be life- threatening, is what I tell myself. Sometimes, I actually believe it.

  • Cath says:

    I’m very familiar with this struggle. I think it happens whenever there’s a big loss, regardless of whether it’s a loss of an actual “thing” or person (like your health or when we lost our daughter in utero), or the loss of something less tangible, like your dreams for the future or your illusion of security/ immortality. When you have big losses like that, it changes you so dramatically, and that then causes ripples through every single one of your relationships. Some relationships are flexible enough to adapt and change and continue to grow and some aren’t.

    This stuff is so hard – it’s hard because it’s tricky figuring out which it is – is this a relationship that can change if I/we work at it or do I just let it gradually drop out of my life? It’s hard because everyone recognizes the “obvious” loss in your life – your health/ our baby, etc, but all the relationships that change – whether they change for better or worse, are invisible losses of the way things were, and they all add to your groundlessness and grief.

    It’s hard because I know that I’m still very raw and sensitive and I worry about asking for what I need – it’s easier to forgive and move on if you think someone is responding poorly because of ignorance. If you ask for what you need and they still can’t/ don’t want to adapt the way they relate to you, then that hurts even more! So it’s a huge risk to ask for what you need. And then there’s that anger that creeps in with all of this – why should I be the one having to put all the effort into maintaining this relationship when I’m the one who’s sick, exhausted and heart-broken? When I’ve lost so much, why should I have to summon up the courage to take the huge risk of asking for what I need?

    Some of the stuff that’s helping me as we’re still renegotiating all of our relationships:
    – In spite of the natural impulse to withdraw and to cover our wounds, we made the conscious choice to tell our story. We realized that most people would want to support us but would feel very anxious about doing so – it would help them and our relationship in general, if we spoke openly about our experience and the general attitude that we hope people would approach us with. After sharing our experience, we’ve stated clearly to our friends and family, “We want to talk about this. It hurts more if we don’t. Feel free to ask anything at all.” In many contexts we took the lead on breaking the ice and letting people know that we’re comfortable to talk about our daughter and this is probably the thing that helped most as far as re-negotiating relationships is concerned. Opening the conversation is probably a critical prerequisite to being able to adapt within a relationship.
    – Consciously recognizing and appreciating the fact that some relationships are much stronger since this renegotiation. This helps a lot because my gratitude about these relationships is genuine and deep and it helps to remind me that I’m not alone.
    – Reminding myself that a lot of people don’t share about their greatest pain/ fear/ challenges. I really don’t know if those people who haven’t been able to adapt and see/ be with who I am now are limited by pain or stress they’re going through right now, or have been through in the past. I think this is the most likely explanation in cases where people aren’t willing or able to adjust.
    – Reminding myself who I was before losing our daughter. I’ve always been on the empathic end of the spectrum, but I really had no idea that this is what loss feels like. No idea. And that’s with extensive training and practice in professional counseling! And as Chris says, I also wonder what kind of friend I’ve been to others who were in a hard place. When I reflect back, there are interactions I’m not proud of! It’s not something you can understand until you’ve had the experience of significant loss in your own life. It’s an alternative universe and some people who haven’t experienced major loss have enough imagination to relate to you on your new planet and some people just don’t have the imaginative abilities. I often forget this, but it helps to remind myself that whether someone can imagine what my life is like now has little to do with how much they love me – it’s a thinking skill. And some people have developed that particular thinking skill – imagination, empathy, and other people haven’t really.
    – Reminding myself of all the new friends I’ve made, because of our loss. And there are many, including Kellie Walker who’s commented here and shared this article with me. I’m so grateful for those new friendships.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the social repercussions of our grief. As I decide how to live with our losses – especially the decisions around remembering rituals, I’m continually faced with the decision of whether to quietly acknowledge and remember our daughter or whether to do it in community. And as we get further and further from her death-date, it feels like we have less and less permission to remember her in community because the general perception about grief seems to be that there’s an expiry date – it’s okay to grieve for 3 months/ 6 months/ 9 months/ the first year… after that you’re clinging to the past.

    I imagine it’s the same with cancer. At first people are very forthcoming in offering support and an empathic ear, but as the months wear on, it takes commitment and stamina for them to sustain the emotional and practical support, and people probably start dropping away.

    Sometimes I feel like this experience has made me into a weirdo. Or a witch. If I continue to actively remember and relate to our dead daughter for the rest of my life, that pretty much makes me a kook to a lot of my friends and family! I resisted it at first – it’s horribly scary to feel different from your tribe. But I don’t have the energy to fight it anymore and the loneliness of pretending to be someone else while I’m with other people is worse than losing the relationship. I’m now more ready to tolerate the potential losses of further relationships if I just be my weirdo, witchy, grieving, remembering self.

    I’m wondering if experiencing cancer or other illness has the same effect of making you feel different?

  • Lisa, Quite a lot to ponder in this post. I’ve decided I have many “levels” of friends. Some are mere acquaintances and a few (very few actually) are really close. Since cancer, I have learned to not expect too much from people, they just don’t get it and won’t or can’t. You either have to accept that about them or let them go. I’ve also discovered some of my closest friends are now my new online ones, people I have never even actually met. That’s pretty amazing to me. Thanks for the great post and I hope you visit my blog sometime. http://www.nancyspoint.com

  • Cath-
    It doesn’t make you a wierdo or a witch, just someone who is experiencing something extraordinarily difficult.

    People who can’t honor your experience, they’re weirdly lacking.

    I wonder if that friend of yours, Lisa, knows how bad she was at supporting you. Does she have any idea?

    I have to say, if you have the balls to whine to someone with cancer about your relatively normal life, you are a narcissist. What’s the fix to that?

    I have a family member who does this. I’ve been going through a very difficult experience of late (not as bad as cancer or child loss, but probably the next worst thing), and this family member compares his day-to-day struggles with my mammoth issue. I can’t talk with him right now.

  • Suzy says:

    Back in 2008 I had surgery that left me unable to walk for 4 months. When I went to the doctor for a final appt he put a walking boot on me and said I had to wear it for a month.

    I freaked out. Seriously freaked out. While a friend and her boyfriend were with me at the doctor’s. We got in the elevator and I burst into tears. I couldn’t take one. more. minute. of not walking. My friend’s bf muttered under his breath, “It’s not cancer.”

    And I thought, NO, it’s not. But I can’t walk, you moron, and have been trapped in my apt for 4 months, depending on people to get my mail, my food, and help me in case there’s a fire or an earthquake. I was NOT amused by his statement. Because every situation is different where health is concerned.

    That said, I would NEVER complain to someone who had been through cancer treatments about long lines at the Post Office. Or having to drive back and forth to a doctor’s appt for their child.

    When I was on Twitter falling apart about my impending eviction and all trauma related with that, I was aware that others had bigger problems than that. But it felled me. But I’m aware.

    Say something to your friend. Seriously.

  • Michelle says:

    I love your posts, Lisa. While I have not dealt with cancer, I have dealt with multiple incredibly serious medical issues for one of my children since her birth. I feel that there is so much overlap (as you unfortunately know–or maybe you could illuminate me as to which is worse, if you could even choose), and I feel like you so perfectly capture my feelings so many times. All I can say in response to this post, is that my own personal saving grace, both for me personally, my friendships, and my family relationships, has been getting myself into therapy. Having someone removed, someone who is 100% on my side, who doesn’t jump in with her problems to one-up me every time I talk about one of mine, who lets me cry when I need to, and just listens and offers sometimes what I’ve felt is almost literally life saving (maybe sanity saving) advice, has been the best gift I have been able to give myself in these past several years.

    I’m so glad I’ve met you on twitter and your posts are so meaningful and I thank you so much for sharing yourself and your experiences in a way that I know I never could, but helps me so much.

  • Pink Kitchen says:

    Very real – and a problem most of us experience as survivors that is rarely addressed – other than with other survivors. This would be an interesting topic for a cancer conference workshop…

  • Elazar Green says:

    I stumbled on your blog this morning and have just sat here for hours. You have an incredibly expressive way with words. Powerful emotion, powerful topics, powerful writing.

  • d2zen says:

    Ugh. Makes me crazy to think how much time is invested in “friendship” that is barely a decent acquaintanceship. Cancer—or any illness, threat, unemployment, you-name-it—will never register with the self-absorbed. Self-congratulating about annual charity contributions, they are incapable of showing up for day-to-day; big events or challenges seem to annoy ’em. She is likely incapable of illumination. You have bigger fish to fry. She’s a minnow brain.

  • Carl says:

    Wow! Yes! I have gone through the same and I still am! I haven’t worked out yet if this is me or not!

    Thanks for your writing, it as helped me think that it’s not just me thinking this.

    Carl X

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