Today marks the birthday of a former friend. A close friend for over 20 years, she and I hit all the milestones together: college suite mates, bridal parties, baby showers (hers), changing careers (mine), home ownership, an ugly divorce (hers), and emotional changes and growth. Even though we lived in separate cities, we were pretty tight for a long time. But she is no longer my friend and I have no desire for any sort of contact with her ever again. What ended our friendship? My cancer diagnosis. I wish my story was unique, but it isn’t. Friendship doesn’t come with an “in sickness and health” clause, but maybe it should.
At my first few support group meetings, women talked about their cancer experiences and the great support they received from family and friends. Overall, this was true for me, too. Oh sure, there were plenty of bumps along the way (I think all cancer survivors could write the book: “Stupid Shit People Say During Cancer”), but in general, I remain immensely grateful for the strong encouragement of my family and friends. With the one standout exception.
When the friendship imploded, I was confused and struggled to process my “Bad Friend” experience; I was disappointed that my first few cancer contacts didn’t seem to relate. But as time passed, frank discussions surfaced and I found a common theme. Many survivors experience the dissolution of friendship, or friendships, due to their cancer diagnosis (and all that follows). The reasons and excuses are myriad but really don’t matter. What does matter is that this is not uncommon and if it has happened to you, or is happening to you, it doesn’t reflect upon you as a person.
The pervasiveness of fractured friendships isn’t frequently discussed or recognized in the cancer literature and support sites. I never found a “Your Friends May Disappoint You or Desert You” pamphlet next to the “Side Effects of Chemo Drugs” and “Yoga and Recover” brochures. Instead, I found sometimes overwhelming cheerfulness and positivity in cancer-related conversation, especially among survivors. Staying positive and putting the best spin on a lousy situation is beneficial, but the “pink glazing” isn’t always helpful for those who come after us or who are struggling now. The negative aspects of cancer are real and painful and common. The positive aspects of life following a cancer diagnosis are also real and wonderful and common. But if the conversation is always positive, it ostracizes those who are experiencing something different but no less real. It’s important to normalize the emotional pains, the struggles, the physical difficulties, the human bonds that may fray, all of which can linger for years after an initial diagnosis and treatment. These things are normal.
And unfortunately, many women discover that formerly strong bonds of friendship disintegrate under the harsh reality of cancer diagnosis. Maybe it’s the whiff of mortality, maybe it’s the feelings of helplessness, maybe it’s because suddenly you (not she) are the center of attention…. Whatever the reasons, it is a painful truth that some people cannot and will not be able to handle your illness. This will be confusing, disorienting, maddening, and hurtful. But know this: although your illness is ALL ABOUT YOU, how people react to your illness, be it as a bright beacon of support or as a total turd on the floor, is ALL ABOUT THEM.
I share my Bad Friend story with the hope of normalizing anyone else’s Bad Friend story.
The ugly fractures in my friendship with Molly* began immediately at my diagnosis; the harshest was a bullying phone call that reduced me to tearful hysterics as she questioned my already-scheduled surgical decisions and insisted I have my surgery six hours from where I lived. Never mind that her “recommendation” was based on a friend of a friend’s breast cancer treatment, never mind that I nor my family had any place to stay near this facility, and never mind that I lived in Philadelphia, close to some of the best cancer resources in the country. Already a confused mess because of my diagnosis, I didn’t know that I had the power to end the conversation and say. “You’re really upsetting me and I’m hanging up now.” That lesson took time to sink in. If you’ve gone through any sort of serious illness, you know that suddenly, almost everyone in your life has some sort of opinion about it. I say very grudgingly that maybe it’s okay for people to have an opinion, but unless explicitly asked, most times it is NOT okay for them to share it with you.
Molly’s opining continued, and months later as I contemplated radiation, she sent me a text message telling me to “please consider (radiation) as I want to grow old with you.” I was incensed, as the implication was if I didn’t do radiation I would die. Eight months of cancer treatment had built up my “Inappropriate Comment Destroyer Reflex” and I rapidly sent a “please don’t comment on medical issues you have no knowledge of” text. Unsurprisingly, instead of understanding, she was offended.
It took a girl’s only weekend trip for me to realize that our relationship was neither good nor healthy for me. Months of surgeries and chemo had left me longing to share my struggles with close friends. I wanted them to understand. However, everything i brought up Molly tried to top. Hot flashes from the chemo? She had hot flashes, too! Horrible yeast infections from the chemo? When she was pregnant she had the worst yeast infection. Ever! Unable to do anything with my 2-inch long hair. She had serious problems with her hair, too. In fact, was she starting to lose some of it? This continued the entire weekend as she tried to outdo me at every turn. I say with no sarcasm, I’m pretty sure you cannot top the Big C. The moment I realized our friendship was dust was, after vulnerably sharing that I found it hard to deal with or look at pregnant women and babies (due to the loss of my fertility) she tried to force a lifelike toy baby from FAO Schwartz in my arms because “it will be good for you.”
Ouch! The experience now reads like a dark sitcom in the making. At the time I was troubled and puzzled by the termination of our friendship, but it took a long conversation with a leukemia survivor to point out the incredible inappropriateness of Molly’s behavior. It was not okay. (This survivor, too, had her own Bad Friend story.) Like I said, some lessons take longer to sink in.
I could psychoanalyze Molly’s behavior to death, and, in dark moments, I have. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Whatever her deal was…it was HER deal. As painful and insensitive as I found her comments and actions, they weren’t about me and were all about her. And when you have cancer, baby, it is ALL about you. Anyone who doesn’t respect that distinction needs to be jettisoned.
The bad news is, many of us may have friendships that cannot survive our cancer diagnosis. It’s unfair, but it happens. I’d even go so far as to say it can be a normal byproduct. It’s hard to say goodbye to these friendships. (Or to the friends that simply disappear without a trace.) But the good news is, most friends pass the “in sickness and health” clause with flying colors. And the even better news is, new and wonderful friendships will be found along the path of your cancer journey. So make new friends, keep the old, and ditch anyone who isn’t serving you and your new healing path.
*Name is a pseudonym.
Jennifer Jaye is an editor, writer, actress, yogini, former karate instructor, and in her newest role, a cancer survivor. She lives, works, and plays in New York City as she attempts to navigate life as a young survivor of breast cancer.
By: Jenn Jaye