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When Cancer Derails A Friendship

Can the wait-and-see approach used to treat metastatic breast cancer help a friendship survive?
PUBLISHED December 22, 2016
Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
As the mom of two older teen girls (and one teen son), I have a great appreciation for the vagaries and changing landscapes of friendships. A white-hot and indispensable friendship in September can cool to just a passing greeting by January; a friend one daughter could not live without becomes someone who simply is not welcome in our house, at least for the time being and until real understanding of hurtful behavior occurs.

Sometimes I feel like illness has thrusted my friendships into that crazy world. Friends I thought I could rely on become scarce, acquaintances I don't know super well either disappear completely or turn out to help in moments of need, great and small. 

But the greatest heartache has come from the friends who had been there for me — and vice versa — and then suddenly are not. Lives get busy, children and spouses and extended family demand attention. I understand and am right there, too. How can I possibly focus on cancer when I am worried about my child's college applications?

The question is, though, did the friend actually do a disappearing act because of my illness, or is something else going on? When you hear the words, "Everything's good. Just busy" as an answer to repeated queries and there are muted (or failed) efforts to get together, at what point do you decide that maybe this prolonged — and I thank God and doctors and luck and science every day for that single "prolonged"— illness is actually what's to blame?

I suppose it is possible to ask. But how to phrase such a question?

"Hi Ruth, it's been a while since we saw each other, and whenever I suggest getting together, you are unavailable. Is it because I have been sick for two years?"

I don't think I can do that.

Like most — if not all — of us, I hate being put on the spot. I believe you can't really trust an answer that comes from a blunt question like the one posed above. If that were asked of me, I'd deny it and quickly make, and keep, a date to visit in person. Even if I didn't want to.

In addition to the unfairness of such a question, I know that some of my friends really, really, really don’t want to talk about my illness. And that silence is OK, although cancer is a pretty big part of who I now am.

So, just as my metastatic breast cancer demands acceptance of a stressful “wait-and-see” approach of scans-treatment-scans-treatment, I've decided that my friendships also deserve this acceptance.

“Wait-and-see” means that while I may not be able to rely on you right now, maybe you have not chosen to disappear completely. Maybe you need a break as much as I need one. Maybe you have your own emergencies and don't feel comfortable complaining to me (if that is the case, I can sincerely and honestly say you can complain to me all you want, although I'd much rather you were not facing an emergency of any type unless it has to do with something like how to get a passport quickly for the trip you just won).

Accepting the wait-and-see nature of the situation, rather than succumbing to the teenager smash-and-burn technique, allows me to concede that I am in pain without blaming you. It means things are complicated, and they are, but are not necessarily finished. In essence, reframing a friendship that is struggling to survive as something that can change at any moment, rather than something that is so poisonous I need it out of my life (like a cancer), encourages me to continue to love, despite the things that hurt.
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